by Luc Bertrand
The print market is often thought of as a stagnant market for connoisseurs. Thus it hasn’t benefited from much academic or industry research. With the boom of contemporary art, this emerging market is gaining momentum, boosted in part by online sales.
By ‘prints’, I mean any multiple, yet original works of art, such as etchings, lithographs, or screenprints. They constitute a distinct category within art media and the art market, and make art accessible to a wide audience whether original prints or reproductions of paintings.
In this blog post, I will explore the print market’s unique characteristics and its potential for growth. I will define the scope of the print market by examining key performance metrics.
Insights from Auctions
Two graphs illustrate the performance of prints in auction sales, and I will compare them to other media such as paintings and drawings. I will first look at the sales revenue and then the volume of lots sold. These data rely on public auction sales, which are commonly used in annual art market reports.
Prints Account for 4% of all Auction Sales
In 2021, prints accounted for only 4% of the total revenue generated from auction sales. In contrast, paintings represented a significant 65% of the total. Here is the breakdown of auction sales revenue by media:
In absolute value, prints accounted for $529 million, while paintings generated a staggering $9.5 billion in sales. Yet prints generated more revenue than photography. Despite its substantial growth since the 1990s, the photography market, which receives greater media attention than prints, lags behind in auction sales revenue.
At the higher end of the market, in 2021 there were only 21 print sales exceeding a million dollars, compared to over 1000 million-dollar sales of paintings. Beyond these records, the majority of prints are sold for less than $500, making it an accessible medium for art aficionados.
Paintings Sell Twice as Much as Prints
Prints accounted for only 22% of the lots sold at auction in 2021, half the number of paintings sold in the same year, a low figure given the appeal of prints and its ability to attract newcomers to the art market. Here is the distribution of lots sold by media:
The number of prints sold is similar to the number of drawings but falls short of the number of paintings. However, prints surpass photography in terms of lots sold.
Whether we look at the number of lots sold or the revenue generated, it’s clear that the “print” category is currently a small submarket.
Is the Print Market on the Verge of a Resurgence?
The “4% figure” is often used to characterize the print market, suggesting that it has become stale in recent years. However, in absolute terms, print sales reached a record high of $529 million in 2021, doubling its revenue in 10 years, a significant growth within a largely stagnant art market over the past decade. Prints have begun to take market share from other media.
This dynamism has become even more pronounced in the last three years. Unlike other media, prints performed exceptionally well during the pandemic, likely boosted by online sales. Currently, prints set new sales records each year for both value and volume, perhaps signaling a resurgence.
Is Auction Data a Good Proxy?
Auction sales belong to the secondary market artworks that have already been sold, along with direct sales between individuals. The primary market includes gallery sales and direct artist sales. Here, I am using data from public auction houses, but can these data represent the entire market? Regarding the primary market, data from the Art Basel/UBS report shows that in 2021, prints and multiples accounted for 6% of gallery sales revenue, aligning closely with the 4% figure from auction sales, so that for 2021, auction sales seem to be representative of the print market.
Print Performance in the Global Art Market
Industry reports on the art market from Artprice, and Art Basel/UBS, provide a macro analysis of the art market. These reports can be complemented with insights into the print submarket. The global art market generated approximately $68 billion in annual revenue worldwide in 2022, marking one of its best years. To put this in perspective, it is roughly five times smaller than the luxury market. In 2021, print sales at auctions amounted to only $500 million.
Artworks are primarily sold through galleries ($37 billion) and auction houses ($31 billion). In terms of volume, approximately 37 million artworks were sold in 2022, with around 20% sold through auctions. In 2021, there were 143,000 print lots sold at auctions.
The most important marketplaces have remained relatively stable, with the United States, the United Kingdom, and China leading the way. France and Germany consistently occupy the fourth and fifth positions, though there is limited data specific to prints. Post-war and contemporary art sales dominate the market, followed by modern and Impressionist art, and then Old Masters.
Contemporary art sales have been increasing each year, while other segments have experienced decreases or stagnation. Prints seem to follow this pattern, with artists like Picasso, Hockney, and Warhol achieving million-dollar sales. A lucrative Pop art segment often overshadows the rest of the print market. Recently, entire sales have been dedicated to a single artist or even a single printmaker, such as the recurring Hockney sale at Philips.
Online sales have surged over the past three years, now accounting for a substantial portion of the market, similar to other retail sectors. There are just as many artworks now sold online as there are books or electronic devices. Print sales appear to pioneer online sales, and collectors have become more willing to purchase art online without viewing the works in person. This trend is reshaping the print market and might offer significant growth potential in the years ahead.
This overview has revealed that the print market is relatively small compared to the painting and drawing markets. Nevertheless, print sales at auctions have doubled over the past decade, with the last three years setting records. These observations are based on auction sales data and do not encompass the entirety of the primary and secondary markets. It is currently challenging to get a complete view of the print market, with primary sales and private sales remaining opaque.
There are still gaps in our understanding of the print market, which is under- researched in Art Market Studies. The next post in this series will help further the perspective by turning toward print dealers and understanding how they feel about this market.
- Artprice, TheArtMarketin2022(& 2023).
- Clare Mc Andrew. Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2022 (& 2023).
- ArtTactic. 2015-22 Print Report.
- Pesando, James E., and Pauline M. Shum. “The auction market for modern prints: Confirmations, contradictions, and new puzzles.” EconomicInquiry, vol. 46, no. 2, April 2008, pp. 149-59.
- Header image: InmemoriamHans-Peter Feldman, DollarBillwithRedNose. Red ink on US one dollar bill, 6.4 by 15.6 cm. Courtesy Musée des beaux-arts de Dole/Lab’Bel.
Biography: With over a decade of exposure to the print market, Luc Bertrand started his journey as an assistant in a Postwar print gallery. Currently, he writes a thesis on the overlooked yet promising market for prints. In 2014, he created the French digital publication LeGuidedel’estampe, contributing to sharing knowledge of prints with new collectors.
Abstract: This overview delves into the print market’s dynamics. Prints account for a modest share of the art market, albeit demonstrating a notable surge in recent years, thanks to new sales channels. This article is an attempt at understanding the actual print market, often overlooked in Art Market Studies.