Five Ways to Lose Money in the Print Market

A screenprint by Andy Warhol depicting a Campbell's Soup Can against a white background with a label reading “Chicken Noodle Soup”.Campbell's Soup I, Chicken Noodle Soup (F. & S. II.45) © Andy Warhol 1968
Joe Syer

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

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Anyone serious about print collecting can’t help but think about investment. If you’re spending $5,000 or more on an original print, you expect it to hold its value, and hopefully appreciate. You certainly never think in terms of losing money; nobody buys art to show a loss. Yet, the reality of the art market is that not everything goes up in value. Some art goes down and many purchases end up being worth approximately what you paid for them.

The best collecting advice anyone ever gave me is to buy the best — even if it’s a financial stretch. It’s the work where you have to ‘break the bank,’ in order to afford it, that usually winds up appreciating the most. The finest prints by the top printmakers, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, consistently hold their value and offer a consistent path to appreciation. They also offer the greatest financial protection if the art market enters a recession. During tough times, it’s always the middle market that gets hit the hardest.

The second-best piece of collecting advice that I ever heard was to find a ‘top ten’ print by a major artist and agree to pay the current market price — in the long run you’ll be happy you did. Remember, there are no ‘deals’ in the art market. Everyone knows what the ‘good stuff’ is and what it’s worth. Be prepared to pay whatever you have to in order to buy the best.

“Remember, there are no ‘deals’ in the art market. Everyone knows what the ‘good stuff’ is and what it’s worth. Be prepared to pay whatever you have to in order to buy the best.”
Richard Polsky

With that in mind, here are five common ways people lose out in the print market:


Buying Prints & Editions on eBay

One of the great temptations in the print market is to ‘try your luck’ on eBay. People have often referred to the auction houses as the art world’s casinos. Well, if Sotheby’s and Christie’s are a casino, then they’re Monte Carlo and eBay is the Carnival Cruise Line. eBay’s lack of professionalism, and complete disregard for scrupulous dealings, is something to behold. For example, the number of fake Keith Haring Subway Drawing listings could fill a stadium. Allegedly, eBay handles customer complaints by occasionally offering a refund, promising to ‘do better next time,’ and then reverting back to the same behaviour. Getting caught is simply the cost of doing business.

Just type in Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Keith Haring and you will be amazed at the thousands of offerings by each artist. While the majority of them are reproductions or posters (passed off as original prints), you will also find a handful of genuine graphics. If by chance you come across an authentic Andy Warhol print, say a Diamond Dust Shoes, be prepared to pay approximately double retail. Just like Nancy Reagan famously said in her anti-drug messages, during the Ronald Reagan presidency, when it comes to buying prints for your collection on eBay, “Just say no.”


Buy Atypical Subject Matter

There is a reason why some artists make it big. Usually, it comes down to being an innovator and contributing something new to art history. This contribution can be traced to a specific body (or bodies) of work. With Andy Warhol, you had the Campbell’s Soup Cans and the Celebrities. With David Hockney you had the portraits and anything that depicts a swimming pool. With Roy Lichtenstein, you had the early comic book imagery. Eventually, each of these artists created prints that captured the spirit of their history-making canvases. Obviously, these are the prints that you want to pursue. When someone walks into your home and can immediately identify a Warhol Marilyn, a Hockney portrait of Celia, or a Lichtenstein Melody Haunts My Reverie — you know you’re on to something.

Conversely, not everything a great artist produces is great. Even Picasso had his down days; probably 20% of his work is of no consequence. The same holds true for contemporary artists. If you acquire an Andy Warhol Fiesta Pig, you may succeed in your mission to own a Warhol. But you might not be buying a work that captures the reason why Andy Warhol matters.


Buy a ‘B’ Work by an ’A’ Artist

The above paragraph leads into this point; never buy a second-rate work by a first-rate artist. For instance, among Keith Haring’s finest prints are his Fertility Series. These serigraphs capture the artist’s essence; superb graphic design, glowing Pop colours, and content that sends a positive message. Yes, prints from this series are expensive and hard to come by. But works like this are typically a stronger investment, rather than works which fall squarely into the category of a ‘B’ work by an ‘A’ artist.


Buy a Print Based on a Certificate of Authenticity

It goes without saying that one should only buy prints that are authentic. Some sellers try to capitalise on your concerns by offering a ‘certificate of authenticity’ with each purchase. But when you get right down to it, what does this piece of paper really mean? Sellers who offer these certificates do so from a position of weakness. Guaranteeing a work is genuine is not based on a piece of paper authenticated by the same organisation that’s trying to sell the work to you.

Serious sellers of important prints don’t issue these certificates. Instead, they rely on their reputations to guarantee authenticity. An established print dealer will give you an invoice, which in effect is saying, ‘We stand behind this work of art.’ It’s just common sense that if you transact business with galleries, private dealers, or online platforms that have been in business for many years — and have established impeccable reputations — they will guarantee the authenticity of anything they sell you.

“Serious sellers of important prints don’t issue certificates of authenticity. Instead, they rely on their reputations to guarantee authenticity.”
Richard Polsky

Buy Fractional Shares of a Print as an Investment

The latest craze in the art market are businesses that sell fractional shares of blue-chip paintings as investments. The basic concept is analogous to the stock market — which sells shares of a corporation like Apple. The fractional shares companies offer you the opportunity to own a small percentage of an expensive painting like a Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas. They acquire the painting, sell shares in it until the offering is fully subscribed, hold it for a while, and then hopefully sell it at the opportune time. At that point, they distribute the profits to their shareholders.

On the surface, it sounds intriguing. The basic concept allows the small investor to participate in owning a multi-million-dollar work which they could never afford on their own. This business model is designed to appeal to the less sophisticated investor. Anyone who knows anything about the art market understands that buying art is more of an individual experience and that profits are hard to come by — and far from assured. The fractional shares art companies play down their high management fees (which guarantee them a profit). They also make lofty claims about how everything in the art market goes up in value by showing you charts with ‘slanted’ data. Since this new business model is in its infancy, and most companies are only in the acquisitions stage, we’ll see what happens when they go to sell.

Someday, you will be offered a chance to buy shares of a Jasper Johns Two Flags print, a set of Ed Ruscha Standard Stations, or an Andy Warhol Mao portfolio. In my opinion, the chances of a company timing the art market right — both on the buy side and the sell side (and then deducting their management fees and profits) — is a recipe for seeing little upside for the individual investor. Chances are, you will have done better simply buying the best quality print that you can afford and holding onto it and enjoying it.

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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