An interview with Harris Schrank of Harris Schrank Fine Prints.
Q1: How did you happen to become a fine-art print dealer?
HS: I became a print dealer about 17 years ago, after collecting prints for many years (and after a long run as a practicing sociologist and then a shorter stint as a corporate bureaucrat).
Q2: That doesn’t seem like a typical route to becoming a dealer – is there such a thing?
HS: There’s no standard route. People from all sorts of backgrounds get caught up in prints – I know one dealer who was a cardiologist and another a pediatrician, any number of lawyers and accountants, a music critic, graphic designer, daughters and sons of dealers. Here and there one finds someone who actually studied art, worked at a gallery, and then became an independent dealer. One would think that would be the conventional route, but it’s not that common.
Q3: How do you view the role of connoisseurship in print collecting and dealing?
HS: The more prints you see and study, the more you appreciate. In the contemporary field images and impressions from a single edition tend to be quite alike, in fact that’s a usual objective of the printer making an edition. But historically the printmaker – who often was also the artist – was not so concerned with creating a uniform edition as creating different variations upon the same theme. So the artist would change the print through various states, or use different inking and papers, thereby getting different results. Rembrandt approached printmaking in this way, as later did hundreds of artists such as Pissarro and Degas, Whistler and even Picasso. So it’s a good idea to know a lot about how these artists worked when examining their prints. And even among the artists who tended to make prints in just a few states, and worked toward a definitive state, connoisseurship is needed to determine which impressions they printed personally, which are earliest or best reflect the intent of the artist.
Q4: How is connoisseurship developed? Would you say most print collectors are connoisseurs?
HS: The basic task is to see lots of examples of the same image. In a good print room like those at the Metropolitan Museum or the National Gallery it’s possible to see a number of Durer engravings of Adam and Eve, or Rembrandt’s Three Crosses, for example, and see how different they can be in quality, printing approach, inking, paper, etc. Once you’ve seen a number of impressions of a print you can start to make judgements about a print’s quality.
In my experience most print collectors are rather serious, and I’d regard quite a number as connoisseurs, but perhaps this is a characteristic of the “pre-contemporary” print field. Many collectors are fussy about condition, but obsessing about condition shouldn’t be confused with connoisseurship. Connoisseurship involves making distinctions among various impressions of the same print, knowing about print techniques, papers, the art historical context, etc. Collectors are wise to work with knowledgeable dealers who can help them locate and select prints, but if they “delegate” too many matters of connoisseurship they’re missing lots of the fun of collecting.
Q5: What collectors do you enjoy working with most?
HS: I enjoy working with anyone interested in prints, regardless of their level of sophistication. The learning process is mutual, for often beginners ask good questions which lead me into areas I hadn’t considered. Of course I enjoy working with experienced collectors as well, and get some special satisfaction from finding something they haven’t seen, or locating a print they’ve been looking for or that fits well into their collection.
Q6: Do print collectors conform to a particular type?
HS: There are lots of types. Some focus on aesthetic issues, some on periods or art movements; some on a particular artist. Some are condition freaks, some want just lifetime impressions or just signed impressions; others search for pictures of certain things like skulls or boats or early New York scenes. Some people just seem to look for bargains, but they tend to have mediocre collections.
Q7: Have you developed some background knowledge through travel?
HS: Sure. For example, it’s interesting to see where an artist worked. I’ve been to Rembrandt’s House in Amsterdam, and James Ensor’s in Ostend, Belgium. And it’s great to see scenes such as the canals and bridges of Venice that were the subjects of Whistler etchings. But to me the real excitement is just seeing great impressions of great prints, and many of these can be found in museums or collections nearby.
Q8: Is specialization important? Do you specialize in particular artists?
HS: I find I focus on artists for whom printmaking itself was a specialty, including for example Dürer, Rembrandt, Jacques Callot, Van Ostade among the old masters; Camille Pissarro and Jean-Emile Laboureur among European impressionists and modernists, and among Americans, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh and of course James Whistler. Some dealers and collectors prefer to focus on a single artist, but I find that confining.
Q9: How do you deal with auction houses, and what advice would you provide collectors about them?
HS: Auction houses are important to the print world, but they can be risky places to buy or sell prints. They sometimes get good prints, especially from estates, but also get problematic prints – the prints dealers and individuals either can’t sell or don’t want to be associated with when they’re sold. Collectors without the resources, time or knowledge to make good judgments among auction offerings are easy prey for the houses. And these days the houses are charging quite a bit – often on both ends – to sell things, so collectors need to be wary of paying too much for lesser quality items. As for the usefulness of auction prices: the huge variability of prints and their auction prices severely limits the value of auction prices as indicators of value. So over-reliance on such records is a bad idea – high prices are too often the result of buyers caught up in an irrational bidding war, and low prices a reflection of low quality offerings. I find that these days – in the old master area especially – many of the finer or rarer impressions don’t reach the auction houses, but are sold privately.
Q10: Any thoughts on prints as an investment?
HS: I’ve heard people say that these days prints are more blue chip than the traditional blue chips. I also sense that the market for older prints may be more stable than the contemporary market. Lots more might be said about all this but in general I’d encourage people to buy prints because they love them, not as an investment.
Q11: What about certificates of authenticity?
HS: These have been thoroughly discredited in recent years; an inflated-sounding claim of a C of A is often a sign that there is a problem in the wings. I provide clients with a fine print description – a full description of the print which I sign and date. I suppose it is a C of A without the pretension of the C of A designation. Every week or so I hear from collectors who’ve overpaid for a print, or bought a print that’s not really what it’s supposed to be, and they’re typically armed with an “official” C of A which is nothing more than a phony marketing device. These C of A’s are no substitute for a buyer doing some homework, or buying from a reputable dealer.
Q12: Speaking of that, how can collectors ensure they’re dealing with someone reputable?
HS: Of course the best way to protect themselves is to develop some knowledge about prints, and the prints they’re purchasing. It’s of course best to see and examine prints in person, not just depend on internet photos, and when buying on the internet, be sure that you buy “on approval”, in case you’re not satisfied with a purchase. I would also encourage collectors to buy from dealers who are members of the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA). These dealers have gone through a serious vetting process. The IFPDA website (www.printdealers.com) lists the members, and is also a good source of print knowledge, definitions, etc.
Q13: Any thoughts on contemporary printmaking?
HS: I’m no expert on contemporary printmaking, but might mention that I’ve been very impressed with the contemporary prints that have been shown at the International Print Center NY (IPCNY) New Prints shows (there have been about 50 of these exhibits over the past decade). Perhaps those not familiar with this non-profit Print Center and its programs and exhibits might be interested in looking into them. (Disclosure – I’m on the Board of the IPCNY.)
Q14: Perhaps more than in other areas of life, people seem rather irrational when buying art? Is there hope?
HS: When it comes to buying art people often justify their irrational or even inane behaviour by saying they buy “what they like,” as if that excuses their mistakes. And in the case of prints, where there’s often another example of the print that’s earlier, or better (or just genuine), and less expensive to boot, it’s infuriating to see people blithely enriching con artists and disreputable auction houses. But education sources, such as your site, the International Print Center (IPCNY) and the dealer’s association (IFPDA), should help people make better choices, so there’s always hope.
This interview has been adopted from an earlier discussion with Mike Booth of World Printmakers
View all prints at Harris Schrank Fine Prints.