Posters, Paintings or Prints, Oh My!

One of the hardest parts of my job in appraising fine art is letting clients know when their prized pieces of art are worth less than they expect. Far less in many cases. And one of the most common situations in which this occurs is when those clients have posters or prints versus paintings and don’t know the difference. Until they meet me, that is! The harbinger of bad news!

Don’t get me wrong! Even some posters can bring in a pretty penny. An original James Bond Dr. No movie poster from 1962 sold at auction for just over $20,000 in 2015. And an ordinary 1967 fan club poster of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band went for almost $60,000 in 2014. Of course, it helped that it was signed by all four Beatles!

All other things being equal, though, original painted works of art appraise for higher values than limited edition prints. And limited edition prints appraise for higher values than open edition printed reproductions like posters. Just check out the auction results in the Andy Warhol Marilyn examples above!

Think selling your art collection will fund your early retirement? Or donating it to a museum will reduce your IRS tax liability? Think again! You might have prints versus paintings worth far less than you think. Here are my 8 top tips for telling the difference:

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 1: Can You See or Feel the Texture of Paint?

See the heavy impasto brushstrokes in Van Gogh's Impressionistic painting versus the delicate layers of thin, translucent paint in Ruben's Renaissance portrait

Detail of Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with                                    Detail of Peter Paul Rubens, Study of Two 
, 1889 (Source)                                                                     Heads, 1609 (Source)

Usually, real paintings have individual brush strokes you can see or feel. This is especially true of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Monet, Van Gogh, and Gaugin.

Other artists seek to eliminate all evidence of their brushstrokes. Instead, they use countless layers of very thin, translucent pigments and glazes blended together to create fine distinctions in color and tone. Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Peter Paul Rubens used this technique. So did Luminist artists such as Frederick Edwin Church or photorealists like Chuck Close. In this case, your painting will likely look and feel like it has a smooth lacquer surface to it.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 2: Can You See or Feel the Texture of Canvas?

Note the difference between a giclée that hasn't been embellished and a giclée that has

Close up of a high resolution photographic print on canvas                         Detail of Howard Behrens’ On Lake Como signed limited                (giclée)                                                                                                                edition giclée

Does an artist distribute paint so thinly over a canvas that you can see or feel the texture of the cloth right through it? Not usually and not like what you see above!

A technique was invented in the 1980’s in which digitized scans of fine art could be transferred to canvas using a special large-scale inkjet printer. This kind of photographic transfer print is called a giclée. The good news is that giclées make great art affordable and available to almost anyone. The bad news is that a giclée can be so realistic that people can mistakingly believe they are buying an original work of art instead of a printed reproduction.

The best way to tell if you have a giclée versus a painting is to run your hand along the surface. A giclée will have a completely uniform canvas texture to it. There won’t be any of the telltale swirls, skips, buildups or brushstrokes indicative of real paint. It will look and feel more like the colors are embedded into it.

Some artists make giclées of their own original works that they then hand-embellish, sign, and number. A giclée like this will be a bit more difficult to distinguish from a painting. However, large areas in which the image has been printed instead of painted should still be seen. Hand finished giclées often appraise for a higher values than those that haven’t been. It’s similar to the difference between an open edition poster and a hand signed, limited-edition fine art print.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 3: Is There a Clear Boundary to the Image?

The woodblock image extends only as far as the size of the plate. The edge of a painting extends beyond the portion that is seen on the frame.

Franz Marc, The Riding School, 1913, woodblock print                                                 Edge of a painting on canvas

If your artwork image has what looks like a clean, straight, arbitrary boundary around it that doesn’t extend to the edges of the canvas, paper or other surface, you most likely have a print of some sort.

In the woodblock printing process used in the example, an artist carves or gouges his design out of a flat surface like a block of wood, linoleum, or metal with defined edges. Ink is then applied to the remaining high, flat, uncarved parts and is transferred to a receiving surface like paper or canvas onto which the block is pressed. This is called a relief printing process. The edges of the block are often very clear, or there might be a tiny bit of seepage caused by the ink squishing out from under the block.

When an artist paints directly on a surface, by contrast, the edges will be uneven, ragged or will extend all the way to the edges of the surface.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 4: Is There a Lip Around the Image?

You can see the lip around this etching where the plates forced into the paper under great pressure

Leroy Neiman, Scampering Back, Color Etching, 1972

In certain types of printing processes, the ink is wiped away from the surface of the plate and retained in the grooves that have been cut, scrapped, gouged or etched away. The ink from the grooves is forced out onto the paper using extreme pressure that leaves an indentation of the plate in it. If you see a straight raised lip around your artwork, it is most likely a print from this kind of process, called intaglio printing.

Sometimes you can’t see a lip because the print has been framed in a way that doesn’t show it, or it has been trimmed away. Trimmed prints are worth less than untrimmed ones. Beware of buying any prints sold as intaglio prints such as etchings, engravings, and aquatints that do not have the plate mark showing.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 5: Is There an Edition Number on the Artwork?

An edition number is usually printed in the margin of the paper in pencil.

Leroy Neiman, Scampering Back, Edition Number

A number in the form of xx/yyy is the edition number of a limited-edition print. The 54/150 in the Neiman etching here tells us that it is the 54th print in a print run of 150 total prints.

Why are some prints numbered like this? Hand-made printing matrixes (the surface the design is carved, drawn or etched onto) break down with use. Artists generally oversee or conduct the print process themselves and will only make as many prints as will meet their quality standards for a finished product. After printing, the artist will go back over the prints and hand number and sign them in order, usually in pencil and usually outside of the plate mark, in the margin of the paper.

Never buy a so-called limited-edition print without being able to see the edition number. It might be a photomechanical copy instead. Also, watch out for prints with print run numbers over about 250. This may be another indication that the printing process was photomechanical which will make the print far less valuable. It’s also good to check up on your artist and see how many different prints and print runs were made of your print. In addition to regular edition prints, there are often artist’s proof prints (A/P or E/P), printer’s proof prints (P/P), hors d commerce or complimentary prints (H/C), bon á tirer or ready for print prints (B.A.T.) and entire additional print runs done using a different printer or a different kind of paper. There can also be prints made posthumously from existing plates which are less valuable as well.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 6: Is the Artist Signature Printed or Hand Signed?

Pablo Picasso, La Ronde de la Jeunesse (The Youth Circle), 1961, (signed in the plate and in the margin and numbered)

Many artists, like Picasso, placed his signature in the plate as part of the design used for his prints. Every print made would display that same signature as part of the printed artwork. That doesn’t make it a signed print, though! A true, signed print will have a second, hand-rendered signature by the artist usually in the margin. And a true signed, limited-edition print will have the edition number also added to the margin. If this piece did not have the second faint signature in pencil and edition number shown in the close-up views, it would probably be a photomechanical reproduction worth under $100. With it, it is worth over $1,000.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 7: Can you See a Dot Pattern Under Magnification?

Photomechanical prints, whether digital or offset, will always reveal a dot pattern when you look at it up close.

Close Up of a Photomechanical Copy of Julio de Diego’s Blueprint of the Future, 1943

The first thing I do when I’m asked to appraise a fine art print is to look at it under a loupe or magnifying glass. If I can see some kind of dot pattern, it’s a dead giveaway that I’ve got a photomechanical reproduction rather than an original fine art print or painting. The nature of the pattern can actually reveal the particular printing process used. The resulting value is essentially the same, though, whether it’s a digital or offset technique.

Sometimes an artist will sign photomechanical prints under the right circumstances. A good example of this would be an artist who autographs a poster at an exhibition of his works. Such an autograph can increase the value of the print. That doesn’t make it an actual fine art print, though.

Prints versus Paintings Tip # 8: What Does the Internet Tell You?

If your painting can be found on one or more online print-on-demand sites, you will probably have a print.

Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, 1872, Oil on Canvas

The Internet is your friend when you need to research your artwork. And it’s a lot less expensive than getting an art appraisal!

If you know the title of your work, put it in your search engine and see what comes up. Maybe you think you have Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, for example. But Google tells you that the original resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also finds no less than a dozen online print-on-demand sites that sell reproductions of it for under $100. It’s probably safe to say that you have a print in this instance. If you don’t know the title, researching your artist might shed some light on it. If you don’t have either, try taking a picture of it with your phone and uploading it to Google Images.

Don’t hesitate to ask a professional for help if you’re still stumped! Museum curators, framers, restoration specialists and art appraisers like me can all point you in the right direction.