Sunday, November 25, 2007

Autograph hunting

One of the first things anyone said to me when I started buying prints is that, “Unsigned prints are worthless.” Now it is true that a print hand-signed by the artist is going to be worth more than an unsigned print, but there are many other elements that define the worth of a print beside a mere signature. Aesthetic value, subject, rarity, and above all authenticity, play their part. By authenticity, I mean this: if a print is supposed to be signed, it should be signed; if it is not supposed to be signed, it should, in general, not be signed.

I have, for instance, a set of Picasso linocuts issued as Picasso Linogravures in 1962. These are magnificent things, but they are immaculate facsimiles, authorised and approved by Picasso, not original Picassos. The linocuts were first issued in signed editions of 50 by Galerie Louise Leiris, printed by Arnéra. Because of the reduction method invented and used by Picasso, which uses just one plate of linoleum instead of a separate one for each colour, it would have been impossible to make any more prints from the original plates. Instead, new linoleum plates were made at 42% of the original size, and it is from these that my linocuts were made.

Pablo Picasso, Bacchanale au taureau, 1959 - unsigned facsimile linocut

Because they are so beautiful, and so obviously genuine relief prints rather than reproductions, they are frequently offered for sale without any of the above information being pointed out, and, mysteriously, with the signature of Pablo Picasso in pencil in the bottom right. Now if anyone seriously believes that Picasso sat down and religiously signed each plate in Picasso Linogravures they are welcome to do so, but I prefer my copies unsigned, as they were issued.

Oskar Kokoschka, Mädchenbildnis, 1920 - signed original lithograph

Of course there are exceptions to this rule. An obvious one is my Oskar Kokoschka lithograph, Mädchenbildnis (Portrait of a girl). This was one of the original prints included in the 1923 edition of Die kunst des radierens (The Art of Printmaking) by Hermann Struck. This book was published by Paul Cassirer, who was also Oskar Kokoschka’s dealer. The lithograph is initialled OK “in the stone”, and that is how it was issued. But I was surprised and delighted to discover that my copy had also been hand-signed in pencil by Kokoschka, with his distinctive zigzagged signature, and the inscription, “Orig. lithographie Oskar Kokoschka 1920”. I have no doubts as to the authenticity of this signature, or the date, which sets this work back three years into the heart of Kokoschka’s most creative and vital phase. Kokoschka may have signed some copies in Cassirer’s office; or perhaps he signed this for a friend; whichever way, I am glad he did.

Henry Detouche, Le Toucher, 1904 - original etching with aquatint, signed in the plate

The convention of having the artist hand-sign and justify each copy of a print only evolved in the early twentieth century, anyway. Before that, a signed print would probably be a “bon à tirer” proof, signed as a guide to the printer as to how each subsequent proof should look, or possibly an individual gift from the artist to a friend, usually with an inscription. Nineteenth century prints may be signed or initialled within the plate, or credited in type below the image; they are not generally hand-signed. I have, for instance, a copy of an exceptionally scarce portfolio of Art Nouveau etchings with aquatint, Les Cinq Sens by Henry Detouche, published in 1904 in 60 numbered copies. Mine is one of a small number of additional artist’s copies, marked Exemplaire de Présent. It is very warmly inscribed on the title page and signed by Henry Detouche, but even though there are only five etchings, I don’t believe it occurred to him to hand-sign the individual prints. They are signed H. Detouche in the plate; to add a hand signature would have been superfluous.

Because many of my print acquisitions have been sets of prints rather than individual images, I have many examples where the individual prints are signed in the plate or completely unsigned, but the justification page that states the limitation of the edition, and specifies the printer, the paper, and the publisher, is hand-signed by the artist. In my view, a copy of this provided with the print supplies much of what a collector really wants, which is a cast-iron guarantee of the rarity, quality, and authenticity of the print.

Otherwise, print collecting becomes just a branch of autograph hunting.

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