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
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
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
But we have found our kind of print in
Reba and I visited
Thus inspired, we decided to mount an exhibit of prints by both Mexican and
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
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.