A New Look at Three Old Masters

The market for old-master prints is thriving

A multimillion-dollar group of twenty-three luminous, richly detailed, mint-condition Albrecht Dürer engravings printed between 1496 and 1519, including the supremely rare Adam and Eve: For a print dealer, the collection was the coup of a lifetime, and one that took Carlo Bella, the 44-year-old director of New York's Pace Master Prints, a decade to pull off. You might even say he had been preparing for it since high school. His parents own a print gallery in Italy, and by age 14 Bella was already highly knowledgeable. "My mother would make me touch different papers with my eyes closed and identify which century they were from," he recalls. "Sixteenth-century Italian paper feels firm and soapy, while seventeenth-century paper is more flexible, with less body and an almost corrugated surface. Today I can run my fingers over a paper and tell how it's been treated, if it's ever touched water."

It was this kind of passion that enabled Bella to finally secure a dozen Dürer prints a few months ago after difficult negotiations with a Japanese museum that was going bankrupt. (Top print dealers around the world had been ready to pounce, but Bella had been cultivating a relationship with the museum for years.) And it was this kind of knowledge that helped him to then sell Adam and Eve literally overnight for almost $800,000.

Even given today's volatile economy, the market for old-master prints by artists such as Dürer and Rembrandt is thriving. There are so many people in line for the finest of these prints that they can sometimes be sold with a single phone call. Collectors have long prized their expressive beauty, keeping prices consistently high over the years. "Rembrandt's work seems to transcend time," says Bella. "He looks so modern today. I know collectors who own both Rembrandt etchings and Donald Judd sculptures."

The appeal of old-master prints is that they reveal the artist's hand, much like a painting. The problem is finding them; most of the best have been acquired by museums over the years, and those that remain in private hands have had a few centuries to stray into unlikely places. Marika Thompson, a specialist in old-master prints at Sotheby's in London, vividly remembers the December day a few years ago when someone came in with a battered old suitcase that had been languishing in a barn for years. "Inside was a folder with some of Dürer's most extraordinary woodcuts," she recalls. "They were as fresh as the day they were made."

"To track down the top prints, I most often travel to Europe looking for collectors willing to sell," says Alan Stone, co-owner of Hill-Stone in New York. "My clients will wait years to acquire the best." Indeed, the print market is more about opportunity than anything else: Many people have the desire for a particular print and the cash to buy it, but when it finally surfaces, only one collector will get first dibs. That gives dealers an awful lot of power. "I try to place prints very carefully," Bella says. "I get to know my clients and their collections over time. Only then can I gauge which one would really appreciate a particular work."

Experts advise avoiding prints made after an artist's death (referred to as "posthumous prints"). "Lifetime impressions have a brilliance and a freshness about them that you simply can't find in posthumous impression," Stone says. A good dealer will be able to distinguish between the two by judging the quality of the impression (brightness, clarity, depth), estimating the age of the paper, and recognizing changes to the design of the plate. "If the seller says the print is an original from the sixteenth century but the paper's clearly eighteenth-century, an alarm goes off," Bella says.

Don't assume that a lofty price tag guarantees a high-quality print. For instance, after Rembrandt died, his plates were bought by other printers, who often retouched them, producing images that are distortions of the originals—yet have been known to sell for up to $30,000. "The quality of Rembrandt's artistry cannot be matched in a posthumous work," says Adrian Eeles, a director at Artemis Fine Arts Limited in London. "Especially since etched plates wear down fairly quickly with repeated printing and the drypoint burr [which gives the work its velvety texture] is very fugitive."

Some collectors look for less expensive but well-respected prints from series such as Hogarth's The Rake's Progress (1735) or Jacques Callot's Great Miseries of War (1633). Right now, the three artists most sought-after by serious collectors of fine prints are Dürer, Rembrandt, and Piranesi.

THE TECHNICAL MASTER Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) so brilliantly mastered engraving techniques that no one before or since has been able to come close. One of 18 children of a Nuremberg goldsmith, he apprenticed early in goldwork, painting, stained-glass design, and woodcuts. On a 1494 trip to Italy, he began teaching himself the art of cutting fine grooves into a copper plate using only a sharp tool called a burin and the strength and precision of his own hand. (Etchers, on the other hand, cover the plate in wax, draw their design through the wax, then dip the plate into an acid bath, which eats away the exposed metal.)

Most of Dürer's 96 engravings have Biblical themes. The finest, such as St. Eustace, Melencolia, St. Jerome in His Study; Knight, Death and Devil, and Adam and Eve, sell for up to $800,000 if they are in mint condition. His 200 or so woodcuts, which were mainly executed by his workshop, are generally priced from $5,000 to $7,500 apiece, though some, such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Samson Rending the Lion, and The Bathhouse, may fetch as much as $250,000 in mint condition.

THE INNOVATOR "Rembrandt is the greatest printmaker of all time, with the possible exception of Dürer," says Eeles. "His techniques were amazingly innovative, and he handled the etching needle with such dexterity."

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) often experimented with different papers, using handmade European paper and occasionally parchment for his later etchings. After 1647 he sometimes used imported Japanese papers of different weights, textures, and colors. The artist, who made close to 350 etchings during his lifetime, regularly reworked his copper plates, adding new details, thus creating several unique versions (or "states") of a given work of art. He was so imaginative and skillful that even scratches and accidents with the acid wash would be used to his advantage.

Among the most sought-after Rembrandt etchings are his portraits (especially self-portraits) and landscapes, which generally start at $20,000 for a good lifetime impression and can go as high as $200,000 to $300,000. Recently, some of his top prints, such as Christ Presented to the People, have sold for $1 million or more. His most famous etching, The Hundred Guilder Print, so called because legend has it Rembrandt paid 100 guilders to buy it back for his private collection, took him years to complete. It recently sold for $1.5 million. Pace Master Prints is offering a fifth state of the drypoint of Ecce Homo for $1 million. (There are only six impressions of Ecce Homo in private hands.)

THE ARCHITECTURAL VISIONARY Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), a Venetian antiquarian and classical scholar, traveled to Rome in 1740 to record the city's monuments and antiquities. The result was Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), a book of 135 oversized etchings. Piranesi's feeling for the poetry of ruins, as seen in this collection, greatly influenced Neoclassical architecture.

"Piranesi's etchings have a remarkable sense of atmosphere," says James Mackie, of London's Henry Sotheran gallery. "He completely broke from the lines traditionally used in architectural views. And he was involved in every step of the process, from the drawings and sketches to the inking of the plates. He's one of the greatest names in printmaking." Piranesi continued to publish his Roman prints for the rest of his life, so there are numerous high quality lifetime impressions on the market, ranging in price from $3,500 to $25,000.

Far rarer are the wildly surreal, imaginative prisons he depicted in his portfolio Carceri d'Invenzione (1749-50; reworked 1761). "These etchings are both historical and romantic, with sheer decorative power," says Nancy Bialler, a print specialist at Sotheby's New York. Last fall, Sotheby's New York sold a first edition of 14 plates for $127,000.

Experts advise avoiding selections from the Vatican Edition, as they are printed on low-grade yellow paper that has usually gone brittle.

"People are intrigued with etchings and drawings for the same reason," says Paris dealer Paul Prouté, whose Left Bank gallery has more than 100,000 etchings, engravings, and drawings, dating back to the 15th century. "They offer an intimacy that you can't find in painting."

Top Dealers and Galleries of Old-Master Prints

Most of the finest dealers can be found in New York and London. Among the best are those below:

• C.G. BOERNER: 23 East 73rd Street; 212-772-7330
• HILL-STONE, INC. (by appointment only): 212-249-1397
• INTERNATIONAL FINE PRINT DEALERS ASSOCIATION: 15 Gramercy Park South, Suite 7A; 212-674-6095; www.printdealers.com
• PAUL MCCARRON: 1014 Madison Avenue; 212-772-1181
• PACE MASTER PRINTS: 32 East 57th Street, 10th floor; 212-421-3688
• SOTHEBY'S: 1334 York Avenue; 212-606-7000
• SWANN GALLERIES: 104 East 25th Street; 212-254-4710

• ARTEMIS FINE ART LTD.: 15 Duke Street, St. James's; 44-207-930-8733
• CHRISTOPHER MENDEZ (by appointment only): 53 Clerkenwell Close; 44-207-253-9699
• HENRY SOTHERAN LTD: 80 Pimlico Road; 44-207-730-8756
• SOTHEBY'S EUROPE: 3435 New Bond Street; 44-207-293-5749

• PAUL PROUTE S.A.: 74 Rue de Seine; 33-1-43-26-89-80