With Christie's for nearly two decades, Murray Macaulay originally trained as a printmaker in his native South Africa—an experience he cites as invaluable for his everyday work as a London-based specialist. We asked Macaulay, Senior Specialist and Head of Prints & Multiples, for his advice on collecting these works, who the biggest sellers are, and which pieces he particularly loves from his own collection.
How long have you been at Christie’s and how did you get to where you are now?
I joined Christie’s in 2000, running the auctions at Christie’s South Kensington, after having trained as a printmaker at Rhodes University in the sunny Eastern Cape. Making prints as an art student proved an invaluable grounding. The hands-on, trial-and-error experience of the underlying processes and aesthetic potentials of print media has been hugely helpful in the day-to-day business of being a specialist, and assessing the works of art that pass through my hands. Since 2016, I’ve been responsible for all of Christie’s live and online auctions in the UK.
What kind of prints do you offer?
At Christie’s, we deal with prints from the late 15th century to the present day. It’s therefore more accurate to speak of “several markets” in one category, each with its own trends and shifts in taste. In the past decade, the main area of expansion in terms of buyers and value has been in Pop and Post-War editions, something that reflects the wider trend across the art market. Modern prints are still our top sellers in terms of single-value items, as are important Old Master prints, often exceptionally rare in fine impressions and very desirable to connoisseurs. In the auction world it is sometimes said that the print market is a bellwether for the health of the wider market as a whole, with robust sales reflecting consumer confidence. Despite all the uncertainty in the wider world, 2016 was an excellent year for prints.Why do you think prints and multiples have become popular over recent years?
Print collecting has a long history—there have always been print enthusiasts and connoisseurs. The art market is now truly global and, in that expanded marketplace, prints have found new audiences, drawn by the pedigree of the artists and the caliber of the work, often at far more accessible prices. Another attraction for many collectors is price transparency. As prints are produced in an edition, price comparisons can be made with other impressions sold at past auctions via price-indexing sites. In this regard, prints are a lot more quantifiable than other areas of the art market.
What advice would you give those interested in starting a collection of prints or multiples?
Clarify your interests. The most compelling collections aren’t randomly assembled but have something unifying—perhaps a theme, or a focus on a school of art or period, or just an idiosyncratic take on the world. So think about what interests you. Lots of artists—both famous and undiscovered—make prints; you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Be informed. Learn how prints are made—a good place to start is MOMA’s interactive website What is a Print?. For a more in-depth, scholarly work, see Antony Griffiths' book Prints and Printmaking An Introduction to the History and Techniques.
Educate your eye. Whether it’s the hand-hewn relief of a woodcut; the wiry, acid-bite lines of an etching; the digital perfection of an inkjet print; or the screenprint squeegee’s sweep of ink across a stencil, prints have their own distinctive look. Many national museums have print rooms open to the public, with master prints by great artists, so take a look. Auction houses hold regular sales and commercial galleries often have print programs, too. And don’t forget graduate shows to see how the next generation are stretching these processes.
In the auction world it is sometimes said that the print market is a bellwether for the health of the market as a whole
Who are your biggest sellers, and who’s on the up?
Evergreen areas of the market would be Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya; Modern Masters such as Munch, Picasso, Miró, and Chagall; Pop and Post-War artists such as Donald Judd, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. But there are so many other sought-after artists’ prints that it is difficult to name just a few. My tips for artists whose print prices are on the move? Jean Dubuffet, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. What should buyers look for in terms of condition, provenance, and so on?
Condition is the main consideration with prints. Again, because they are editions, prints can be compared with other impressions and qualitative comparisons made. As condition has a direct bearing on value, with prints of the best value commanding a premium, we include a summary of the condition in our main cataloguing text to contextualize the estimate; more elaborate condition reports are available to download online.
How about at online sales where buyers can’t see before they purchase?
The condition report becomes even more important. We try to be as detailed as possible in our reporting of any condition issues, and we are always available to discuss a work, if necessary. In practice, we have found over the last 10 years that more and more of our clients are buying works unseen in our live auctions, on the basis of our judgment about the condition of a work.
What should buyers avoid?
There are two categories of condition issues: reversible and irreversible. Paper conservators can do a lot to minimize toning caused by light or acidity, but not much—sometimes nothing—can be done for substantial fading of the colors, moisture damage, or large tears.
How big is your own collection? Which are you favorite pieces and why?
My wife and I mostly collect the work of artist friends—it adds something to a piece if you know the person who made it. But we have other works by more established artists, too, among them a treasured screenprint from the early 1960s by the amazing Sister Mary Corita Kent—a Pop art nun based in Los Angeles. She made art about faith, packaging, and the civil rights movement, and recently had a major show at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The Turner Prize–winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans collects her work, and I have been a fan for many years.