How to Start A Collection of Old Master Prints

By Charlotte North, Natasha Broad
See the prints featured here in Sotheby's Prints & Multiples sale, which opens on 17 September.

T he field of Old Master prints offers collectors access to some of the greatest masters in the history of art: Dürer, Rembrandt, Schongauer, Goltzius, Goya and more. For these artists, printmaking was as vital a channel to their creative invention as any other medium. Indeed, some of the greatest masterpieces in any technique were created in printed form, such as Dürer’s engraving Saint Jerome in his Study (Lot 7), which displays the artist’s astonishing ability to unite meticulous graphic description with naturalistic effects of light and shadow, volume and space.

Though often modestly priced, Old Master prints can have the ‘wall power’ of paintings or the exquisite, jewel-like qualities of miniatures and objects of vertu. Collectors new to the category can, however, become daunted by its complexity. The notes below are therefore designed as buyer’s guide to assist in navigating the field.

Desirability of Subject Matter

Tastes of course shift and evolve over time, though certain subjects often become synonymous with particular artists, thereby increasing their desirability. For example, Rembrandt is perhaps most widely celebrated for his self-portraits, and his etched works in this genre are now particularly sought-after. See, for instance, the candid ‘snapshot’ of a fiery 24 year old (lot 39) or, the more grandiose portrayal, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill (lot 40), in which the artist depicted himself in elaborate historical costume.

Conversely, another Dutch master, Hendrick Goltzius, would be more readily associated with the classical nude, represented in this sale by the heroic and monumental figure of Hercules in a chiaroscuro woodcut (lot 19), and by the amorous figures in the engraving, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (lot 37).

States and Quality of Impression

Old Master prints are often known in different ‘states’, a term used to denote the various forms an image takes after accidental or purposeful changes have been made to a block or plate. The identification of earlier and later states assists us in dating when an impression was printed, and crucially, if this occurred during the artist’s lifetime or posthumously.

A more subjective evaluation of the quality of an impression provides another insight into when a work was printed. Early impressions are usually fine, rich and relatively three-dimensional: Dürer’s The Virgin and Child with the Monkey (lot 17) is an example. Here, the work exhibits the qualities the artist must have envisaged when he incised the plate, whilst later impressions of the same subject, pulled after the plate had started to degrade, lack such clarity, depth and contrast.


Prints created before the nineteenth century vary hugely in their rarity as they were not published in pre-determined, limited editions; rather, for the most part, they were printed on demand. Fine, early engravings by artists such as Dürer and Schongauer, produced in the initial stages of their careers before they were well-known, are thus scarce. For example, The Man of Sorrows between the Virgin and St John (lot 22) was amongst the first six prints that Schongauer engraved. There are only eleven known examples of the second state of this subject, and the present example along with one other are the only impressions that remain in private hands.

Prints created for wider circulation – for example, woodcuts produced for devotional and educational purposes, such as Dürer’s Small Passion series (lots 1-5) – are by contrast more readily available and, as a result, more modestly priced.


A distinguished or interesting history can increase the desirability and value of a work significantly. The Goya Caprichos set offered in this sale belonged previously to Vincent van Gogh, the cousin of the painter and an art dealer and bibliophile who had an eye for rare and fine works on paper. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill has a similarly important history. The work was initially owned by Johann Wenceslaus Paar, First Prince of Paar (1719-1792), a friend and patron of Mozart, who amassed a highly regarded collection of Old Master prints. Such lineages help to reassure potential buyers of a work’s quality and importance.


Works on paper that have been in circulation for hundreds of years unsurprisingly exist now in highly variable states of conservation. Prints that have been well-preserved and reveal little to no sign of interference are thus now particularly sought-after by collectors. It is, for instance, now rather unusual to find an Old Master print with sizeable margins, as historically collectors would trim sheets to the plate mark or to the subject itself in order to mount them into albums.

Works such as Rembrandt’s The Artist’s Mother in a Cloth Headdress, Looking Down: Head Only (lot 59), where the wide margins serve as a satisfying framing device, are therefore prized by modern connoisseurs.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's