Friday, 8 February 2013

Ebay at your own risk

I had an interesting discussion with a reader very recently about the condition of prints. He rightly pointed out that there had not been enough discussion about this important issue when it comes to buying prints from, say, the twenties or thirties. I mean, I think you can get a bit too precious about these things, but now, as if by magic, there are three modern British prints by minor artists up for sale on ebay that show exactly what the problems are. At least two could fetch reasonable prices. But should they?

First off is Thomas Todd Blaylock, an artist who when it came to woodcuts was never shy about coming forward and laid the colour on with verve. At the top the rather drab image now on British ebay, below a typical Blaylock of a similar scene at Poole harbour near where he lived. You can see that all the paper on the top image has light-burn round the mount and in itself this should reduce the price quite alot. One dealer commented helpfully, I suppose, about the merits of restoration as part of much the same discussion. But this print is a terminal case way beyond help. Someone may come up with exactly the same image to prove me wrong, but till then there is a well-known print-blogger who likes to apply a bit of photo-shop technique to images of prints he considers past their best and then puts them back online where he found them. I think this is the print-equivilant of genetically modified crops and irresponsible. Faced with doctored images like that on the internet, you finally have no idea where you are when it comes to judging what a print should look like. But this Blaylock is beyond even his efforts at resuscitation - I hope.

By no means common, and quite nice to see, a Dutch canal scene, as it happens, by Frank Whittington. More ambiguous but still, I would say, not as it came off Whittington's press down at Brockenhurst. We don't see enough of Whittington to say how bright his prints should be, but reason tells you an artist doesn't go to the the trouble of cutting blocks to turn out a drab little print like this. Or do they? He often applied colour sparely in the way his friend Eric Hesketh Hubbard did, but may have decided on something basically monochrome - another Hubbard habit.

I would not want to prejudice anyone over this final conumdrum of a print by John Reginald Taylor. Not at all bad, but is it right as the trade like to say. The seller has it up as lino, but again do you go to the trouble and do you make a print of India that comes out tepid? The other option is the work is simply poorly-printed. When they come out of the package, you will have more of an idea. Till then, proceed with care.

Note: I have just come across a catalogue description for Blaylock's 'Fishing boats, Poole Harbour' (top): 'printed in blue and pink inks. on warm cream wove paper'. A printmaker told me only yesterday that pink was one of the first colours to fade, along with yellow.


  1. An interesting comment on the dangers of buying from descriptions and photos only, whether on eBay, from dealers and especially auctions. Caveat Emptor should be understood by all.

    I am not sure which print is "beyond help". Whilst it is not possible to restore faded colours to there former glory (unless you photoshop it), a restorer of works on paper can usually return the paper to it's original white with no long tern effects on the integrity of the picture. Taking the general brown colour away, often return the print to near their former glory.

    I do not think that the Whittingham print ever had much colour, as you say, much like Hesketh Hubbard, his pictures can have a limited monochrome palette. Also if the general brown was taken away from behind the browns of the print, it would be a different picture altogether.

    Much can be achieved by professional restorer, although careless amateur attempts using domestic toilet bleach should be avoided - pay a professional - it's worth it.

    In the end it all comes down to knowledge. If you know or been made aware that picture is faded or discoloured you can make an informed decision on value and whether to buy or not to buy.

    Sorry - I drifted off track somewhere in the middle of this comment.

  2. I agree with alot of what you say here, Steven, but I also know I buy things and think about having them restored but never do. I just decide to spend the money on another print instead.

    But I get into trouble talking about condition. I was looking at a large number of Seaby prints today. Many had never been framed and it was nice to see them in good condition and nowadays I think that is what I would want to go for myself. The same person had one of the Needles he had bought in a junk-shop or somewhere but it was nowehere near as good as the same thing I had seen at Abbott and Holder. That one just sparkled and I just do not believe any restorer can get that Seaby sparkle back again.

    But it all depends on how many prints you own. One of the great joys of print collecting is a fresh, bright print. I would sooner pay more for that than pay for restoration.

    All this discussion is worthwhile, though, I appreciate the time you take to comment.

  3. A wonderful posting Charles. I think there is an argument to be made for being careful about buying but it also has to do with budget. Do you buy for the name or the art or the value? I don't know. However for me, I frame all my art and it is displayed as much as it can be (wall space is my problem). I am not a massive fan of Blaylock, and I think of him as the British Hall Thorpe and as a result I find his prices grandiose...quality or not.

    I think Steven is correct about the Whittington, but there is a vast difference between his prints. As I understand, some of them he hand coloured (Emma Boormann did the same thing) but he appeared to do them almost on a whim. I think the Whittington for sale on Ebay is very similar to the Hesketh Hubbard prints also....but as you know that was more than likely a conscious decision. Just yesterday a Pieter Irwin Brown print sold on was in stunning condition. It wasn't laid down, and it was fully signed. It's a rare thing indeed.

  4. I buy the art I like and can afford, but like most people would also buy a bargain when I saw it. I certainly don't buy names because most my early German and Austrian print buys had signatures I couldn't read. But we have all seen bad bevaviour amongst collectors connected with rivalry and spite, so motives, as Oscar Wilde might well have said, are rarely pure and never simple.

    Personally, I prefer one or two larger pictures up with a few smaller ones, that means most go in portfolios under tissue. But it protects them against light, dust, thunderflies, rubbish mounting, and I much prefer looking at prints unglazed. The portfolios are always handy if people want to look through them, as I do quite often myself.

    But that means condition has become increasingly important for me because it's much more obvious. Mounting obviously can be used to cover unsightly stuff like foxing. But one of the great things about prints, as you know, is the paper the artists used, especially the colour lino and woodcutters. The play-off between printing and hand-made paper is part of what it is all about with a good artist and if the paper has deteriorated, the overall effect is diminished. With mounting and framing, all that is lost. One of the things I love most is a little German linocut (which you've seen online) on terrific paper. It helps make it - and it is what the artist intended. A good artist works as much with the paper as he does with the wood or the ink.

  5. I'm with Clive on the to frame not to frame conundrum. As you probably know, I am a dealer selling a variety of applied arts, with a special interest in wood and lino cut prints, and from recent experience the majority of collectors buy to hang. It has become increasingly difficult to sell unframed items as it seems that to the modern world, getting something framed yourself is just too inconvenient.

    The connoisseur collector, like yourself, are a rare commodity in these days of instant convenience and I can now understand your wish for the perfect example and the criticism of anything that doesn't reach that exacting standard.

    Sometimes we all have to settle for the less than perfect.

    Interestingly this whole discussion can be applied to other areas of collecting, such as Art Nouveau metal wares, in fact for anything that can be restored back, close to original. I mean restore, not repair, painting over a cracked pot still means it's cracked.

    Less of ebay, please !! more printmaker.

  6. I just think people like me are rare at the kind of events you go to. Almost all print dealers I can think of sell unframed - everybody from Annex to Abbott and Holder to Redfern to Joseph Leibowiz and there is no point your trying to persuade me or my readers otherwise. It's the right way to do it and always has been. What people do with their purchase after that, is their business, like, for instance, choosing their own frame, you know. It has to be obvious. Since when have framers been hard to find?

    As for what I decide to post on, people like to read about what comes up on ebay and as I've said before, it's a nice opportunity to talk about all kinds of prints that come up. You're only spoiling the fun.

    And I can assure you I have had far too many imperfect prints over the years to want many more. But that clearly doesn't mean I am counselling perfection. I'm just not.

  7. As one who buys an occasional signed print on eBay, I do like your comments, Charles. You teach me points on discernment. You help me to be a better lover of good art. But, I appreciate Steven's comments, too. And Clive's. I feel like a student sitting at the feet of fine teachers as they debate those finer points of art appreciation.

  8. Nice to see you back, Karen, and interesting comment in itself coming from someone from the US where ebay buyers actually expect higher standards of transparency. Often US sellers show all faults well, but then they get much better prices, too. I hope you buy from us!

  9. Great comment Charles. I agree that the American sellers are far more serious about showing flaws and less likely to bluff or bluster, I would also say German and Austrian sellers are less likely to blow smoke also.

    I detest having items sent to me in the frame. There are a number of reasons for that. The first reason is that I frame and mount all my art similarly in order to have cohesion for the art displayed and without that cohesion it would be fairly jarring to the eye, and end up looking like a second hand shop. That is the aesthetic side. However the second reason is far more serious than the frippery of the aesthetic. As you and I both know, many countries outside of the USA framed with acidic backing or mounts and as a result, without removing those, irreparable damage can be done to the print. I buy because I love the item, so why would I take that chance? It makes no sense.

    As we have discussed before Charles, here in Taiwan where I reside, framing is cheap in a way that it would never be in other nations. It would be absurd not to have them framed here, so having them framed and shipped in the frame is a waste of money and space, since I immediately throw the frame out upon arrival. I also find it a strange insistence from many sellers that they will only ship WITH the frame. On the other hand, finding a paper restorer is nearly impossible and although I have a wonderful friend who is an art restorer, she lives in Sydney and the costs would be prohibitive. I think Steven also forgets that for many people who collect, location is an issue. For those who live in regional Britain or the USA/Canada, access to professional art and paper restorers is limited, thus making it important to buy art that is in good condition.

    I also think the condition discussion is one that is important, so I appreciate you broaching it Charles. I also respect your candour and impartiality on the matter. It's one that is not had often enough.

  10. I suspect it is easier to pack a work on paper in a frame than it is to pack it with board. As my own approach is more bohemian than yours, I am sanguine about some of the framed work that goes up in the flat, whether inherited, given or purchased.

    But there is another post here in all this and I shall incorporate what you say in that alongside WJ Philips strictures on the matter.

    Some framers will restore as well if you know where to go but this is alot easier and cheaper for the trade. I think restoration makes sense with something valuabel or precious to oneself but in general I don't think Steven's advice is relevant to many collectors.

  11. Just what I needed, thanks a lot….