A Cautionary Tale
By Bruce McKinney
The IFPDA, the International Fine Print Dealers Association, a New York based international association of print dealers, issued a letter requesting its 165 members be vigilant about inconsistencies between descriptions and copies of prints offered at Swann Galleries, the leading auction house in the prints field. According to members, and un-rebutted by the association, this is the first such letter the association has issued in its 20 year history. Coming at a time when the economy is in disrepair and business in the trade, based on conversations with about ten members, "difficult," the letter may reflect concern about Swann's business practices or be an effort to weaken Swann's position as the principal re-marketer of prints. To understand the issues involved I have spoken with as many members as time would allow.
To the layman, and I am one, an original print is described as one in which the artist designs, proofs and prints or has a master printer print an image thereafter approving and signing it. Each image is an original. The numbers vary from artist to artist. Some may have chosen to issue 10 examples, others a hundred, and such print runs rarely exceed 300. IFPDA members sell these prints which have been created over the past 500 years. They sell prints and they may also sell other things. Many members are members of several organizations.
By all accounts the business has been changing.
This was once a field dominated by dealers that, like the rare book trade, has had to make room for an ever more robust auction presence. In the book business there are 160 auction venues across North America, Europe and Australia. Sotheby's and Christies dominate the high end but there are many successful firms with niches and categories in fields they rule. In the print business, by comparison, Swann alone accounts for perhaps fifty percent by volume of all prints sold at auction. Its position is unique.
Here is the IFPDA letter:
From: IFPDA Board of Directors
Sent: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:25 AM
Subject: IFPDA Board Alert on Swann's
As you know, beginning with its charter and over years of dedication, the IFPDA has distinguished itself as an organization dedicated to the highest standards of quality, ethics, and connoisseurship among print dealers. Accordingly, it is also vitally concerned with the integrity of the print market in general. Therefore, through its Market Advisory Committee, the Association makes every effort to stem the flow of problematic works into the marketplace.
Over the years, this initiative has often involved communications with specialists at auction houses regarding the identification and withdrawal of problematic works from their sales. Most have welcomed and have been responsive to our input.