Five Ways to Make Money in the American Pop Print Market
By the author of ‘I Bought Andy Warhol’ and ‘I Sold Andy Warhol, (too soon)’

A screenprint by Andy Warhol depicting Marilyn Monroe in pink, lemongrass, and cobalt blue against a pink background.Marilyn (F. & S. II.27) © Andy Warhol 1967
Joe Syer

Joe Syer, Co-Founder & Specialist[email protected]

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Who hasn’t walked around an art fair and spotted a work by an artist who they didn’t collect — but decided to buy it anyway? What inevitably happens is that after a few weeks of living with your purchase, you start rationalising about why you bought it, and quickly become unhappy. Better to stay patient, “keep your powder dry,” and wait for the right opportunity.

Collecting prints can be rewarding on many levels. But if you’re looking at it in terms of pure investment, you need to develop a strategy based on discipline. Being disciplined is hard to do but it’s necessary if you’re serious about putting together a print collection that will be “worth something” someday.

The right opportunity is a print that you’d be proud to see on your wall, but also has a high degree of liquidity should you want to sell it. When it comes to liquidity in print collecting, you’re talking about an impression created by an artist of historic importance, and an image recognized as one of his most desirable. The rest is just a matter of price and condition. You make money in the print market on important prints in great condition. Print collectors tend to be persnickety; only works with no fading, no bent corners, and no wrinkles will do.

One of the keys to making a profit on your print holdings is establishing a relationship with the top print dealers and online art platforms. Bear in mind that if a seller has a key print available, they can pick and choose who they sell it to. You always want to be on their front burner so they call you first. Dealers like to sell to clients who have money, taste, and pay quickly. If you fall into these three categories then you’re on your way to financial success in the print market.


Buy The Prints Equivalent of Defensive Stocks

If you’re a stock market investor, you’re probably familiar with the term “defensive stocks.” This refers to stocks which are known for slow but steady growth. The equivalent in the art market are prints by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. These three artists are among the safest bets around. When the art market experiences some turbulence, you’ll be able to sleep at night if you own some of their better prints.

Art collecting has always been about acquiring artists who will survive the test of time - and avoiding those who won’t. This is especially true for the print market. For example, Jim Dine is a talented painter with relatively little demand for his prints. Should the art market go south, you will find there will be no demand for his prints. Many others fall into this category including James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann. Even a great artist like Robert Rauschenberg is a little iffy. The “flight to quality” (also a securities term) during tough times holds especially true for the print market. Better yet, if you buy quality to begin with, you won’t have to worry about occasional market gyrations.


Buy Complete Portfolios

Whether you’re talking about stamps, coins, or comic books, there’s something special about owning a complete set of anything - especially Andy Warhol prints. It goes without saying that a set of Warhol prints captures the artist’s concept of the “repeated image.” If you own a Mao portfolio, and hang all ten prints, you get to experience the complete sweep of Warhol’s vision.

When buying portfolios it also makes good sense to buy a set where the edition numbers match. If you want to take it to an extreme, you buy a set which has never been framed and still resides in the original cardboard portfolio that it came in. However, the idea is to live with the art. Common sense dictates that you use archival materials to frame each print and hang them in a place where you can control the amount of direct sunlight they receive. If you follow the above advice, when you go to sell a complete portfolio, such as a set of Jasper Johns Color Numerals, a Keith Haring Fertility set, or an Andy Warhol Flowers portfolio — there will be plenty of buyers willing to pay a premium.


Buy the Californians

Even though all the above artists are international in status, they will forever be associated with the state of California - including David Hockney (who’s British). While each artist has his own distinct identity, one thing they share in common is their work was influenced by California’s unique sense of light and space. This resulted in art that took its own sweet time to develop, free of the New York gallery scene’s pressure cooker environment.

Since these artists resided in California, their work took a little longer to attain the market highs of their New York counterparts. This presented collectors with buying opportunities - especially with their prints. While none of these artists’ paintings are undervalued, their prints are still reasonable. Sam Francis’s colorful lithographs are a downright bargain. Wayne Thiebaud’s better graphics run a close second.


Sell in Anticipation of a Retrospective

During the 1980s, when the art market began its current ascent, dealers would obsess over the financial potential of a major artist with an upcoming retrospective. The thinking was that if Jasper Johns had a big survey show at MoMA, there would be a trickle-down demand for his prints. While all of this seemed logical, it never played out that way. People who bought paintings continued to buy paintings; they never bought prints too. It was just one of those things that has remained true to this day. The right idea is to sell before a retrospective, not buy in anticipation of a price jump.


Buy Prints by the Great Painters Not Known for Their Prints

One example of a significant painter, not known for his prints, is Jean-Michel Basquiat. During his brief lifetime, Basquiat only produced a handful of prints, which have become much sought-after. But then a funny thing happened posthumously. The artist’s sisters, Jeanine and Lisane, signed deals to publish a group of serigraphs which were copies of their brother’s paintings. The results have been controversial. On the one hand, the silkscreens themselves are ravishing. They capture the edgy beauty of Jean-Michel’s art. Yet, they will always be surrounded by controversy because Jean-Michel never approved them and obviously never signed them.

From a market perspective, these Basquiat prints tend to do well in both the private market and at auction. Personally, as an art authenticator, I have a little trouble with a print that the artist never touched. But I’m probably in the minority. With that in mind, if a collector is looking for an investment in the contemporary print market, buying Basquiat’s posthumous prints is probably a good call.

Richard Polsky is the owner of Richard Polsky Art Authentication and Richard Polsky Art Fraud Prevention which specialise in authenticating the work of seven artists including: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein.

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