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Market for printsfree

  • Peter Fuhring

What sets prints apart in comparison to other works of art is that they are, by definition, multiples. This implies that printed images were not produced for one patron or a single client but for a wider audience. The person who made a print understood this condition from the outset and this awareness demanded attention to the marketing of his prints. In principle, anyone could sell a print: the printmaker, printer, print publisher, a specialized print-seller, or any person who owned a print, although, during some periods and in some countries, guild rulings limited such activities. In principle the market for prints was open, but the way prints were marketed underwent enormous changes over time. The commercial life of a print begins with the passing of information about the plate’s existence, which was done either by displaying an impression or by writing about it.

The display of prints in printmakers’ workshops or ateliers, starting in the late 15th century, represents an immutable way to sell prints and offered the buyer the added advantage to converse with the printmaker. The print shop as a marketing tool emerged in the second quarter of the 16th century and these “corner presses” or Winkeldruckers became quickly standard throughout Europe and opened in America from the late 18th century onwards. Initially, such shops presented prints produced by a single printmaker or print publisher, but they quickly proposed prints made and published by others as well.

Writing about prints happened parallel to their display. To inform by correspondence potential clients who could not visit the workshop or shop and to send handwritten descriptions of prints was a common practice. Letters contained few details of the prints offered for sale but could include the name of the artist who made the composition, name of the engraver, subject, size, and price. To reach out to a wider public, nationally and internationally, some print publishers decided to draw up extensive listings of their production, often limited to the most recently published prints, or adapted to the specific wishes of a client. This practice is well documented by surviving correspondence from the 16th century onwards.

The print-seller, whether the printmaker or the print publisher, could use various other means to pass on information about prints to clients. One is the placement of an advertisement in a journal. For prints this practice started in the 17th century, and quickly took the form of listings of more than one subject. The address and signboard of the seller was mentioned to make it easy for the client to find the shop. But advertisements of prints could also be included in published volumes of prints listing further items that could be obtained from the publisher. A second way to supply information about the publication or forthcoming publication of a print was to release an announcement (aviso, prospectus). Such printed announcements were often combined with an invitation to subscribe, offering advantageous opportunities to the subscriber, such as the best possible or early impressions that were proposed at a lower price than the official market price. This method was notably adopted in England, France, Germany, and Italy in the 18th century, and proved particularly important for large print series, maps, illustrated books, and gallery works demanding a long period of preparation, which required significant capital outlay to guarantee the successful production of the prints. A common feature of most subscriptions for more extensive works is the delivery in installments over a given period of time.

Many print publishers adopted yet another method to send information to clients about the prints in their stock and to enlarge the market for them. Following the earlier examples of the book printers and book publishers, print publishers issued catalogs of their stock, also called stocklists. Such lists were either printed in letterpress (involving a specialized printer) or engraved (produced in-house). The information contained in these printed lists was similar to that found in correspondences. Stocklists could be confined to the most recent publications, but generally they contain an overview of all prints pulled from plates that were in the possession of the printmaker or publisher. The format of the stocklist varies from a single sheet list to booklets of more than a hundred pages listing thousands of titles. The first publisher of prints issuing such a stocklist was Anton Lafrr in Rome in 1575; later examples are the Indice delle stampe of the De Rossi firm in Rome in 1677 and subsequently of the Calcografia della Reverenda Camera Apostolica in the Vatican from 1741. The first stocklists in other countries were issued in Amsterdam by Cornelis Claesz (1609), in Frankfurt by the brothers Johann Theodor de Bry and Johann Israel de Bry (1609), in London by Peter Stent (1653), in Zurich by David Herrliberger (c. 1744), in Vienna by Artaria and Company (c. 1770), and in Philadelphia by Mathew Carey (1795). When prints were included from other publishers, such catalogs are called “assortment lists.” When the printed catalog offers prints available in a shop, irrespective of who published them, one speaks of shoplists. Parallel to print publishers, the book publishers also offered prints for sale, such as bound print series or illustrations included in books. The firm of Christopher Plantin in Antwerp is amongst the earliest to flaunt in its catalogs, called Index librorum (1567), the presence of prints in books as “elegantissimis Iconibus illustratæ,” “illustrati,” or “Figuræ.”

The selling of prints was not limited to either the workshop of the printmaker or to the shop of the print publisher and print-seller. Many publishers enrolled ambulant sellers or peddlers, who traveled with groups of prints locally, nationally, and internationally. This method was mostly reserved for the selling of cheap prints, a relatively little studied but major part of the print market, mostly situated outside the technical and aesthetic scope of what would be considered art. The organization of this ambulant trade is well documented for the 18th century. For instance, the heirs of the map publisher Johann Baptist Homann, who had a shop in Nuremberg, relied upon ambulant sellers as one can learn from the introduction to their 1736 catalog, Notitia omnium Mapparum; better known today, however, is undoubtedly the case of the Remondini family’s publishing house in Bassano del Grappa, Italy.

Fairs offered other possibilities to attract attention in order to sell prints. Probably the best known fair is the Frankfurter Buchmesse, organized twice a year in the spring and autumn. For this book fair the Antwerp book and print-seller Plantin issued in 1570 a large broadsheet catalog, Catalogvs Librorvm Typographiae-Plantini, in which the presence of prints is indicated as “æneis figuris” or “met [schoone copere] figuren.” His fair catalogs offer detailed information about the supply of prints, often in bound form.

Last but not least, auctions represent a major marketing tool for the sale of prints. Public sales offered interesting possibilities to acquire impressions at reasonable prices. Many prints were resold after their first arrival on the market. Auctions often comprised collections of prints that had become available when the owner or heirs of a deceased collector decided to sell. Auctions could take place directly at the house of the owner. Initially, they were advertised by simple announcements but were not accompanied by printed lists or catalogs. By the late 16th century, more and more auctions were professionally organized and printed catalogs were issued to attract as much attention as possible. Following the patterns of collecting—at least until the 19th century—auctions made it possible to acquire pieces from older collections, often mounted in albums or placed in portfolios. Perhaps the best-known person who acquired entire collections was Michel de Marolles: his first collection was sold to the French king in 1667 and comprised over 123,000 prints by more than 6,000 printmakers. The development of the market for prints in the 18th century resulted also in sales of individual impressions, a system that became standard in the 19th century and is still practiced today. This development came about as a result of the increased knowledge about the works of individual printmakers fostered by the rise of catalogues raisonnés and the keen interest of buyers in specific impressions. This interest could be further enhanced by the knowledge of ownership history, as documented by the presence of bookplates and coats of arms on bindings, or by handwritten or stamped marks on individual prints.

The market for prints was never confined to a single place or country. The main production centers of the 16th century, such as Antwerp, Rome, and Venice, were succeeded in the 17th and 18th centuries by Antwerp, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Augsburg; by the 19th century they were principally located in Paris and London. The import and export of prints played a major role in their diffusion. For the importation of prints numerous print dealers made the effort to propose to their clients a selection of works that would be difficult to see without traveling. A good example is supplied by the activity of the Mariette family in the 17th century who imported prints from Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries, and by Pierre-François Basan in the second half of the 18th century, who imported, notably, prints from England. However, much remains to be discovered to map out the business connections of many print publishers and print-sellers. For export, considerable discounts were offered to intermediary merchants, who bought prints wholesale and could profit from adventageous credit conditions.

Enterprising businessmen also took an interest in the selling of prints, as this is documented by the recovered prints from a ship from Amsterdam on the 1595 expedition that went down in Nova Zembla on its way the South Asia. Most of the prints in its cargo were provided by Cornelis Claesz from Amsterdam. A second example of more than 5,000 titles is mentioned in a list of Dutch prints sent by the Dutch East India Company in 1602 from Amsterdam to Patani in Malaysia. The exportation of prints is documented by numerous archival sources that show how print publishers and print-sellers struck deals with colleagues abroad. In the 19th century this practice changed when certain European publishers created temporary or permanent outlets not only in Europe but also in Russia and the Americas. This innovation became quickly a standard practice for the major publishing firms and should be seen against the background of the rise of new printing techniques, first of lithography and then of steel plates from 1820 to 1835, whose matrices did not wear out like those of copperplates, so that almost unlimited numbers of impressions could be pulled. New approaches had to be developed to sell such great quantities of prints. They took the form of temporary deals with colleagues, shared endeavors for publishing and selling, or of permanent outlets to profit from print sales. Also, advertisements and stocklists were issued in different languages. Displaying prints was the most attractive way to attract attention, but stocklists with descriptions remained effective. Publishers such as Boussod, Valadon & Comp., successors to Goupil & Cie, in Paris, even began introducing illustrations to these stocklists by the late 19th century to make their merchandise more attractive (see Boussod, Valadon & Cie).

Not all prints are alike, and, depending on their market appeal, they had short or long life cycles that could stretch from one generation to more than a century. Most subjects related to contemporary events; calendars and theses went through single editions and, when demand stopped, the plates were reused or melted. Other subjects, such as Old and New Testament stories, portraits of saints, popes, cardinals, bishops, kings and queens, princes and noblemen, learned men, artists and musicians, etc., as well as subjects taken from antiquity, such as architecture and ornament, retained public interest for longer. Prints reproducing original art works (especially paintings) existed in a similar context, whether they were etched by authors of the art themselves or executed by professional printmakers; many compositions became favorites of more than one generation of clients, especially those engaged in the formation of complete oeuvres of one artist or printmaker (see Reproduction of works of art). One should bear in mind that any plate, when carefully handled, could yield many more impressions than generally assumed—sometimes decades or even centuries later. The reprinting of old or well-used plates often resulted in less satisfactory impressions, as was noted already in the 17th century by Abraham Bosse. A great variety of tricks were introduced to improve or “refreshen” these weak impressions, either by retouching or by reinforcing the lines of the copperplate.

The demand for printed images, whether old or new, increased considerably in the 19th century with the rise of the middle class and the development of urban centers in Western countries. For numerous 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century plates, we know of reissues until deep into the 19th century. The printing of old plates seems to have largely stopped in the second quarter of the 19th century, but not the selling of old impressions. The interest in the history of printmaking or in particular printmakers by a closely knit body of collectors and museums was an evident driving force for the marketing of old prints. The combined activity of selling old and new prints, produced in various European countries, is perhaps best exemplified by the history of the Paris-based Mariette family, which dominated the European print market from the mid-17th century up to the mid-18th. The inscription of their names from as early as 1635—beginning with Pierre I (i), and continuing with Pierre II (ii), Jean, and Pierre-Jean Mariette—along with the acquisition dates on the prints they handled, illustrate the importance of their activities. The roles, chronology, and importance of many of their colleagues, who did not adopt this marketing practice, still await rediscovery.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the selling of prints increased considerable when judging the number of auction catalogs produced in various countries of Europe and America. Numerous collections, often built up over more than one century, were broken up and dispersed in public sales. In this manner huge quantities of prints found their way to other collections, whether private or public as part of print departments in museums. Moreover, by the middle of the 20th century, a specialized collectors’ market emerged around limited-edition prints of leading avant-garde artists (Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, etc.), which constitutes today an extension of the market for modern and contemporary art.


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