Collecting guide Old Master prints

Collecting guide: Old Master prints

International specialist Tim Schmelcher on the evolution of a field in which a work by Dürer or Rembrandt, with estimates from around £500, can represent exceptional value 

What is the definition of an Old Master print?

The term refers to any printed image, irrespective of the printing technique employed, that was created over a period of more than 600 years, from the beginning of printmaking in Europe to the end of the 18th century or early 19th century. The works of the great graphic visionary Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), who has been described as ‘the last Old Master and the first modern artist’, serve as a useful, if somewhat arbitrary end point. 

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Ya van desplumados & Aquellos Polbos, 1797-98. Etchings with burnished aquatint and drypoint on laid paper. Plate 214 x 148 mm. Sheet 290 x 180 mm. Sold for £4,000 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Ya van desplumados & Aquellos Polbos, 1797-98. Etchings with burnished aquatint and drypoint on laid paper. Plate 214 x 148 mm. Sheet 290 x 180 mm. Sold for £4,000 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

How were the first Old Master prints made?

The earliest printed images in Europe were created in the 14th century, by which time China was already looking back at a 1,000-year-old printmaking tradition. In the West, the idea of creating images by printing, rather than painting or drawing, probably emerged from the production of textiles and the practice of stamping pieces of fabric with repeat patterns.

An abstract, floral, or perhaps even simple figurative ornament would be carved into a wooden block. By pressing the inked or painted block onto a textile while the pigments were still moist, very much like a rubber stamp, the design would be transferred. 

From this method, it was only a small step to cutting a stand-alone image into the block, which could then be printed onto cloth, vellum or, with the establishment of the first paper mills in Europe around this time, paper. Very few examples survive of these earliest prints, which were created by anonymous craftsmen. 

Most early prints appear to have been images intended for private devotion, such as the Man of Sorrows, the Virgin or a saint, depicted in relatively simple outlines and meant to be hand-coloured. 

It is still a matter of research and academic debate as to where the very first woodcuts in Europe were made, whether in Italy or north of the Alps.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531), Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John, 1502. Woodcut with handcolouring on vellum. Sheet 297 x 183 mm. Sold for £6,875 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531), Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John, 1502. Woodcut with handcolouring on vellum. Sheet 297 x 183 mm. Sold for £6,875 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

When did engraving emerge as a technique and how did it evolve?

Engraving emerged slowly and quite independently some decades later. This happened, possibly simultaneously, in central Italy and around the Upper Rhine, in a region that is today Alsace, in southwest Germany and in Switzerland, in the workshops of gold- and silversmiths. It is no coincidence that Martin Schongauer (c. 1448-91), the very first northern engraver known to us by name, came from Colmar in Alsace, and was born into a family of goldsmiths. Albrecht Dürer, the towering figure of the next generation, was also the son of a goldsmith.

Martin Schongauer (circa 1445-91), The Nativity, circa 1471-73. Engraving on laid paper. Plate & sheet 259 x 170 mm. Sold for £10,625 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online
Martin Schongauer (circa 1445-91), The Nativity, circa 1471-73. Engraving on laid paper. Plate & sheet 259 x 170 mm. Sold for £10,625 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

Perhaps in order to keep a record of the engraved decorations on metalworks such as boxes, plates or armour, gold and silversmiths would rub the surfaces with ink and create an impression of the incised ornamentation by pressing a piece of paper against it. It only took a change of perspective to realise that metal plates could be engraved specifically for the creation of images, and that multiple impressions of these images could be printed. 

Most of the earliest engravings were quite small, hand-coloured and pasted into books, thus serving as cheap substitutes for book illuminations. Another practical application of the new technique was the printing of playing cards — indeed, the first recognisable (although anonymous) artist of this new medium is known as ‘The Master of the Playing Cards’. A wonderfully elegant example of the artist’s work, the so-called Queen of Flowers B — known only in this one impression — was sold at Christie’s in London in 2006. 

The Master of the Playing Cards (active circa 1435-55), The Queen of Flowers B (Geisberg 48.51; Lehrs 49), c. 1435-40. Engraving printed from two plates on laid paper. Sheet 130 x 91 mm. Sold for £243,200 on 20-21 September 2006 at Christie’s in London

The Master of the Playing Cards (active circa 1435-55), The Queen of Flowers B (Geisberg 48.51; Lehrs 49), c. 1435-40. Engraving printed from two plates on laid paper. Sheet 130 x 91 mm. Sold for £243,200 on 20-21 September 2006 at Christie’s in London

What are the key differences between woodcuts and engravings?

Woodcuts are relief prints, which means that the lines and surfaces standing proud on the printing block constitute the image, while all blank areas have to be carved down. For engravings, the opposite is true: they are intaglio  prints, which means that the image is created by grooves cut into the metal plate, while the surface remains blank. Etchings, aquatints and drypoints all belong to the latter category. Etchings and aquatints are made by using acid to bite the recesses into the plate, while lines are scratched directly into the plate to create a drypoint.

How did these respective techniques develop over time?

In the early days, the woodblock or engraved plate would simply be pressed onto or rubbed against the paper by hand — processes which would quite quickly be replaced by the use of printing presses. With improved technology and increased demand, hundreds of impressions could be printed. Often, especially in the case of famous printmakers such as Dürer and Rembrandt, the blocks or plates continued to be used for printing long after the artist’s demise — sometimes well into the 19th or even 20th century.

While fine early impressions give the beholder a sense of depth and atmosphere, very late impressions can appear one-dimensional

It is the deterioration of the printing ‘matrix’ (the block or plate) that raises a fundamental question every collector or print specialist is trying to answer when looking at a print: when was it printed?

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Melencolia I, 1514. Engraving on laid paper. Plate & sheet 243 x 190 mm. Offered in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Melencolia I, 1514. Engraving on laid paper. Plate & sheet 243 x 190 mm. Offered in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

‘This is a very fine, early impression of this famous and important print of 1514. It looks silvery, yet warm, with strong, yet subtle contrasts and great clarity,’ says Tim Schmelcher of the work above. 

How important is the question of when an Old Master print was made in terms of determining its value?

This is the  question. It is not a matter of mere snobbery or of authenticity — the sense that a sheet was handled by the artist and printed in his workshop — but of quality and aesthetic pleasure.

The pressure in the press is enormous and with each run through the press, the printing block or plate wears. Little by little, the fine ridges of a woodblock are flattened or break, and the block may even crack; later impressions of woodcuts show gaps, the lines become broader, the image coarse and uneven.

The engraved lines in a metal plate lose their depth and sharpness; later impressions of engravings become grey and weak, as the grooves hold less ink and the finest lines begin to disappear. While fine early impressions of both techniques give the beholder a sense of depth and atmosphere, very late impressions can appear one-dimensional and lifeless.

How many good impressions of any one print could be pulled?

There is no clear answer to this and it very much depends on the quality and depth of the cutting or engraving. Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), Dürer’s great Netherlandish contemporary, engraved very lightly; fine, early impressions of his prints are hence very rare. 

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Surgeon, 1524. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 125 x 83 mm. Sold for £1,375 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online
Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Surgeon, 1524. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 125 x 83 mm. Sold for £1,375 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

A portrait print of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg engraved by Dürer himself in 1523, on the other hand, gives us a rare indication of the numbers of impressions printed and the prices paid. In 1520, he sent two hundred impressions and the copper plate to the Cardinal, and received 200 gold guilders and a quantity of fine cloth by way of payment. This provides some evidence as to a possible print run at the time — the idea of a limited edition only arose in the second half of the 19th century.

How can one determine the time a print was made?

First and foremost it is a question of quality — of how strong, clear and rich the image appears. Printing quality, however, is a matter of judgment and experience, and therefore subjective. In many instances, there is hard evidence concerning the chronology of the printing, as prints often exist in different ‘states’. 

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Jan Lutma, Goldsmith, 1656. Etching with drypoint and engraving. Sheet 198 x 148 mm. Sold for £122,000 on 19 March 2014 at Christie’s in London 

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Jan Lutma, Goldsmith, 1656. Etching with drypoint and engraving. Sheet 198 x 148 mm. Sold for £122,000 on 19 March 2014 at Christie’s in London 

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Jan Lutma, Goldsmith, 1656. Etching, engraving and drypoint on Japan paper. Plate 199 x 147 mm, Sheet 215 x 165 mm. Sold for £30,000 on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Jan Lutma, Goldsmith, 1656. Etching, engraving and drypoint on Japan paper. Plate 199 x 147 mm, Sheet 215 x 165 mm. Sold for £30,000 on 5 July 2016 at Christie’s in London

For example, when Rembrandt first created the portrait etching of Jan Lutma, Goldsmith  in 1656, he left the background mostly blank and printed a few impressions of it. Shortly after, he decided to add a window to the background of the plate, and printed some additional impressions.

Catalogues raisonnés of many of the most important printmakers describe such ‘states’ — deliberate or sometimes accidental changes (such as scratches or cracks) to the printing plates or blocks, which help to distinguish early from later or very late impressions.  

What can the paper tell us?

Much research has been carried out to determine the types of papers used by different printmakers over the course of their careers. From early on, paper mills marked their papers with watermarks. It is well documented, for example, that until about 1520, Dürer frequently used paper with a watermark in the shape of a Bull’s Head, and that early impressions of certain prints etched by Rembrandt during the 1640s appear on paper with a Fool’s Cap watermark (see example below).

An example of a Fool’s Cap watermark
An example of a Fool’s Cap watermark

Impressions printed decades or even centuries later would be printed on different papers with other watermarks. Unfortunately, the image may have been printed on part of a sheet that does not have a watermark, in which case we have to rely on the paper structure alone to determine the approximate date of its production. Generally speaking, the finer the ‘grid’ of the paper, the earlier it is. 

Beyond the date of printing and the quality of the impression, what other factors can affect the value of a print?

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Patron Saints of Austria, 1515. Woodcut on laid paper. Sheet 178 x 276 mm. Sold for £23,750 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Patron Saints of Austria, 1515. Woodcut on laid paper. Sheet 178 x 276 mm. Sold for £23,750 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

The state of conservation, the rarity, importance and desirability of the subject, the knowledge of who is active in the market at that moment, general changes of taste, and provenance. From the 17th century onwards, print collectors and dealers tended to mark their holdings with inscriptions and little stamps, usually on the reverse of the sheets. Some historical collections are famous among the cognoscenti for their quality and size. To be able to trace a print back to one or perhaps several such celebrated collections ‘ennobles’ the print and raises its value, giving the owner or potential buyer the confidence that it is indeed a fine and important example.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Saint Anthony reading, 1519. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 102 x 142 mm. Sold for £35,000 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Saint Anthony reading, 1519. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 102 x 142 mm. Sold for £35,000 in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

How is the market changing?

While the big names, and Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt above all, still dominate the market in terms of the numbers of prints offered and prices achieved, fine, early impressions of their prints have today become quite scarce. 

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789), The Small Self-Portrait, circa 1781. Mezzotint with roulette and engraving on laid paper. Sheet 213 x 170 mm. Offered in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online
Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789), The Small Self-Portrait, circa 1781. Mezzotint with roulette and engraving on laid paper. Sheet 213 x 170 mm. Offered in Old Master Prints, 1-15 July 2020, Online

At the same time, unusual, quirky and dramatic images by lesser-known printmakers — such as those by Marco Dente and Jean-Etienne Liotard, above — have become increasingly sought after.

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