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 $5,000, can represent exceptional value. Illustrated with works from Old Master Prints in New York on 25 January

What is the definition of an Old Master print?

The term refers to any printed image, irrespective of the actual printing technique employed, which has been created during a period of over 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’, serves as a useful if somewhat arbitrary end point. 

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), El Famoso Americano, Mariano Ceballos, From The Bulls of Bordeaux. Lithograph, 1825. Image 310 x 405 mm, sheet 445 x 567 mm. Estimate $40,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), El Famoso Americano, Mariano Ceballos, From: The Bulls of Bordeaux. Lithograph, 1825. Image 310 x 405 mm, sheet 445 x 567 mm. Estimate: $40,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

How were the first Old Master prints made?

The earliest printed images in Europe were created in the 14th century — by this 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, emerged probably out of 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 onto it. 

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. Only very few examples survive of these earliest prints created by anonymous craftsmen. 

Anonymous, 15th Century (German School), The Pietà. Woodcut with extensive hand-colouring, circa 1450. Sheet 403 x 275 mm. Sold for £223,000 on 3 July 2001 at Christie’s London 

Anonymous, 15th Century (German School), The Pietà. Woodcut with extensive hand-colouring, circa 1450. Sheet 403 x 275 mm. Sold for £223,000 on 3 July 2001 at Christie’s London 

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. A good although slightly later example is The Pietà from mid 15th-century Germany (above), which was sold at Christie’s in 2001. 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.

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 south-west Germany and in Switzerland, in the workshops of gold- and silversmiths. It is no coincidence that Martin Schongauer (c. 1448-1491), 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 1445-1491), The Death of the Virgin. Engraving, c. 1470-74. Sheet 258 x 172 mm. Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Martin Schongauer (circa 1445-1491), The Death of the Virgin. Engraving, c. 1470-74. Sheet 258 x 172 mm. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Perhaps in order to keep a record of the engraved decorations on their metalworks — such as boxes, plates or armour — gold and silversmiths would rub surfaces with ink to create an impression of the incised ornamentation by pressing a piece of paper against it. It took only 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. 

The Master of the Playing Cards (active c. 1435-1455), The Queen of Flowers B. Engraving, c. 1435-40. Sheet 130 x 91mm. Sold for £243,000 on 20 September 2006 at Christie’s London 

The Master of the Playing Cards (active c. 1435-1455), The Queen of Flowers B. Engraving, c. 1435-40. Sheet 130 x 91mm. Sold for £243,000 on 20 September 2006 at Christie’s London 

Most of the earliest engravings were quite small, often hand-coloured and were pasted into books, thus serving as cheap substitutes for book illuminations. Another very practical application of this 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, the so-called Queen of Flowers B (above) — known only in this one impression — was sold at Christie’s in London in 2006. 

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

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

It is the question. This 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, strong impressions of his prints are hence very rare. 

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Dance of Mary Magdalene. Engraving, 1519. Sheet 290 x 396 mm. Estimate $35,000-45,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Dance of Mary Magdalene. Engraving, 1519. Sheet 290 x 396 mm. Estimate: $35,000-45,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

In 1523 Dürer himself, on the other hand, engraved a portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg and supplied the sitter with 500 impressions, as we know from a letter from the artist to the cardinal. This provides some evidence as to the possible size of a print run of the time. Dürer may have printed even more impressions — 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?

Firstly 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 chronology of the printing, as prints often exist in different ‘states’. 

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

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

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Jan Lutma, Goldsmith. Etching with engraving and drypoint, 1656. Plate 196 x 149 mm, sheet 197 x 151 mm. Estimate $50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Jan Lutma, Goldsmith. Etching with engraving and drypoint, 1656. Plate 196 x 149 mm, sheet 197 x 151 mm. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

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 done to determine the types of papers used by different printmakers over the course of their careers. From early on, paper mills have 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?

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669), Bearded Old Man in Fur Cap. Etching, circa 1635. Plate 112 x 101 mm, sheet 115 x 105 mm. Estimate $25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669), Bearded Old Man in Fur Cap. Etching, circa 1635. Plate 112 x 101 mm, sheet 115 x 105 mm. Estimate: $25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

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), Knight, Death and the Devil. Engraving, 1513. Plate 241 x 186 mm, sheet 243 x 187 mm. Estimate $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Knight, Death and the Devil. Engraving, 1513. Plate 241 x 186 mm, sheet 243 x 187 mm. Estimate: $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

How is the market changing?

While the big names, 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. 

Hans Baldung, called Grien (1484-1545), The Bewitched Groom. Woodcut, 1544. Block & sheet 344 x 200 mm. Estimate $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Hans Baldung, called Grien (1484-1545), The Bewitched Groom. Woodcut, 1544. Block & sheet 344 x 200 mm. Estimate: $5,000-7,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Wolfgang Huber (circa 1485-1553), Saint Christopher. Woodcut, circa 1518-20. Block & sheet 120 x 94 mm. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Wolfgang Huber (circa 1485-1553), Saint Christopher. Woodcut, circa 1518-20. Block & sheet 120 x 94 mm. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Old Master Prints on 25 January 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

At the same time, shifts in taste mean that unusual, quirky and dramatic images by lesser-known printmakers — such as those by Hans Baldung and Wolfgang Huber above — become increasingly sought after.