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A Passion for Prints

A CEO with a passion for collecting art can transform a mundane boardroom into a cultural showcase.

There must be a collector gene. I was acquisitive as a child, and filled corners of the family garage with pieces of rusty junk-old pipes, valves, and tools. I graduated to postage stamps and could hardly wait for Saturday mornings when my grandfather would take me to the post office in Beaumont, TX, to buy the newest issue. Later, I poured over 1940s Fortune magazines, with their fantastic illustrations by Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, and saved the most beautiful issues. I finally discovered “art” thanks to a U.S. Navy scholarship-there weren’t many art museums in small Texas towns-on NROTC cruises to Europe, and I longed to own some of what I saw.

When I first started collecting prints, I couldn’t afford paintings. My income never seemed to catch up to the prices of the paintings I coveted in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, about 1969, a friend advised me to look at prints-specifically, at the prints by American master artists of the early twentieth century exhibited at Associated American Artists, a gallery that had published and promoted prints since the 1930s and is still going strong.

Of course, at the time I hardly knew what a print was. For many, including me, a print was related to a “reproduction,” and therefore was valueless. But I soon learned the difference. Nearly all artists have made original-as opposed to reproductive-prints. Renaissance masters, like Albrecht Durer, made prints both to advertise their skills as artists and to tap a market that couldn’t afford their paintings. Other artists are regarded as greater printmakers than painters.

Meanwhile, as soon as there were prints, there were print collectors: By the seventeenth century, collectors were accumulating Old Master prints in large albums. (The typical Old Master print-pre-nineteenth century-is small, not suitable for wall hanging, and mounted in an album like photographs.)

Since the late nineteenth century, most artists have pencil-signed their original prints just below the bottom of the printed image. Sometimes, they have dated and numbered the printed edition: for example, “6/40″ would signify number six in an edition of 40. A small edition number probably adds to rarity and value, but not always. Some large edition prints, such as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (Monroe), a set of 10 images each printed in an edition of 250, have proved very popular and pricey, up to $75,000 for the most popular image.

My collecting shifted into high gear in the late 1970s. My wife Reba put aside her MBA, retired from Wall Street, and went back to study art history. I joined her in as many classes as possible. On the prowl for prints, we began to back our instincts with knowledge. Then, in 1977, I came to Alliance Capital, and among the many charms of my new job were expanses of black office walls, waiting to be filled. We decided to build a real collection.

Doing so required discipline. No one can collect everything. There’s not enough money, time, knowledge, or energy. A collection requires focus, definition, and limits. We decided to limit our prints to those by American artists of the last 100 years or so. Our collection begins with Winslow Homer’s woodcuts of the Civil War (oddly, not “original” prints by the usual definition), and extends to prints by living artists, such as Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. But our hearts are in the early twentieth century, particularly the 1900s through the 1940s, when American artists discovered Modernism.

We wanted lots of images to cover all those bare walls. We envisioned creating a “print museum,” a space where more prints could be exhibited than anywhere else. For example, while the Metropolitan Museum in New York owns more than one million prints, rarely are over 100 or so on display. Today, there are more than 1,000 prints on my office walls.

Collecting American prints-at least those dated prior to 1960-is, not surprisingly, done mostly by Americans. Collectors and museums the world over collect prints by living American artists, and those recently deceased-such as Andy Warhol. These artists helped to spark the “print revival” of the early 1960s. But earlier American prints, our prime interest, are rarely collected outside the U.S. To our knowledge, only one major institution, the British Museum, collects in “our” period. Virtually no dealers outside the U.S. trade in pre-1960 American prints. So despite job demands that keep us traveling abroad many weeks a year, we rarely get to play the collecting game outside the U.S.

But we have found our kind of print in Mexico. The great Mexican muralists, Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, had a huge influence on American artists in the 1930s. American artists traveled to Mexico to see their murals or work as their assistants. The Mexicans came to the U.S. to make murals-and found opportunities to make and publish prints. The Mexican influence can be seen in the 1930s-40s prints of artists living on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Reba and I visited Mexico specifically to look at murals and to expand our collection of Mexican artists’ prints. We contacted Mrs. Pablo O’Higgins, widow of the Mexican artist, who provided us with copies of her husband’s work plus that of many of his Mexican contemporaries. Back in New York, we compared these prints with those by U.S. artists and saw why Jackson Pollock said, “The real man is Orozco.”

Thus inspired, we decided to mount an exhibit of prints by both Mexican and U.S. artists that showed this Mexican influence. This exhibition, at the Spanish Institute in New York, took place during the time of the Metropolitan Museum‘s gigantic show of Mexican art, while the New York art world was enthralled with Mexico. Our exhibition had the distinction of subsequently traveling to Mexico.

One exhibit begets another, as museum directors learn of our willingness to create shows from our collection for loan. “Black and White Since 1960,” a group of our noncolor prints by contemporary artists, was showcased in Raleigh at the City Gallery of Contemporary Art and at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut. “Blossoms in Black and White,” 50 prints of floral images, was on display at Equitable Center in New York. The American Federation of Arts is circulating 110 of our prints, entitled “American Prints in Black and White, 1900-1950,” to museums in North America. Whenever we can, we travel to see our prints installed in each space by different curators. We never fail to learn from the experience.

Creating and lending exhibits is fun, especially when we research and write the catalog. But we also use our prints in other ways. The company Christmas card and even the recent annual report are illustrated with works from our collection. To be sure, modern-day print collecting has come a long way since the seventeenth century, when the collector sat quietly at his desk, turning the pages of his album in privacy.


Dave H. Williams is chairman of Alliance Capital Management, a New York-based international investment management firm.

About dave h. williams