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Define “bargain”

Six-figure print sales are redefining the price of art

Leslie Sacks Fine Art in Brentwood is selling a Henri Matisse lithograph, one of 50 printed, “Grande Odalisque à la Culotte Bayadère, 1925.” In print, the gallery would only identify the price as “more than half a million” — but it’s less than the $666,000 paid by a buyer for the same print at auction in 1994.

As the art market escalates, six-figure print sales become increasingly common. “The print market doesn’t function separately,” says Michelle Senecal, executive director of the International Fine Print Dealers Assn.

Informed by Variety Weekend of the exact figure that Sacks wants for the Matisse, Senecal pronounced the gallery’s valuation as “extremely fair and reasonable.”

That assessment could be a matter of perspective, but the price is by no means a record. A signed etching by Pablo Picasso, “Le Repas Frugal,” sold at Christie’s London for $1.15 million at auction in 2004.

Furthermore, while prints exist in multiples, demand outstrips supply.

“The stock is depleted,” says Kevin Salatino, curator of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Much of the best material has been acquired by museums and collectors.”

Furthermore, Salatino points out that “Grande Odalisque,” which features the artist’s favorite model, is regarded as Matisse’s most iconic print. “It’s only appeared a few times in recent years at auction.”

Ready to buy? A few words of advice:

Fresh, not fried A little heat can go a long way toward reducing a print’s value. “People ‘fry’ prints by exposing them to direct sunlight,” says gallery owner Leslie Sacks. “If the colors are faded 20%, the print (is) worth perhaps 60% less than a fresh example.” Adds Salatino: “Always ask to see the print unframed to check for defects like acid matte burn or fading.”

Nothing’s black and white “A great print should pick up the full texture and entire tonal range of the image, with subtle grays and intense blacks,” Sacks says. “Look for the quality of the impression and a fresh image with untrimmed margins.”

Check the label “Prints tend to be very well documented.” says Salatino. “Modern prints are signed and editioned, and often catalogued.” Similarly, make sure the seller owns the piece before you buy it. “It’s very important that the art dealer own the work he’s selling,” says Senecal. “When the dealer buys a work of art it’s a commitment to the object’s value.”

Ask for a second opinion “If you’re spending a great deal of money, it’s worth it to call your local museum curator and ask if they’ll look at a print,” says Salatino. “That being said, don’t buy art because of the investment; buy it because you can’t live without it.”

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