Taking Care of Your Print Collection

by Victoria Chick
Print shown is a Ernst Haymann, 19th century German etcher.

When a person is excited about collecting prints, no one wants to have his or her enthusiasm suppressed with the mundane. However, now it is time to discuss how to take care of those prints that you have, as well as how to shop for a print and, at the same time, show respect for it and for the print dealer who is offering it for sale.

In previous articles, I have remarked on the amazing durability of printmaking paper. But, there are things that can happen to it. Fingerprints, tears, dirt, foxing, mildew, or stains all make the value of a print diminish. It is well to prevent these conditions from happening by proper handling, framing/hanging, and storage.

Let’s suppose you are in a gallery, artist’s studio, or art fair and you have found a print you want to seriously consider buying. In most of these situations, the seller will have the print in a protective, archival plastic sleeve if it is not framed. If you want to see it out of the plastic, ASK the dealer if it’s alright. Now the next part might seem weird to you if you aren’t used to looking at prints, but keep in mind print prices can be significant and the condition of the print plays a big part in its value. The dealer may ask you to put on a pair of cotton gloves. Even clean hands have a small amount of body oil on them. Once that oil is on a print, dirt attracted to it can seriously soil the paper. Handle the print by supporting it from underneath, not by gripping the edges. And if you want to appear to be a knowledgeable collector, carry your own set of clean, white cotton gloves.

You have just purchased a print. The dealer should wrap it carefully. Flat packaging is better than having it rolled into a tube. Tissue paper should be placed between the print and any cardboard package materials because cardboard is acidic. Also you want the print to arrive home with no smudges. If you can see stains, browning of the paper called “burns”, or small, irregular spots on the paper called “foxing”, this is a perfect time to have a restorer clean the print for you.

Now the question is, “Do you want to hang the print or will you be storing it for some time?”

If hanging it on the wall to enjoy it is your goal, make sure it’s properly framed. If you buy an old print that is in a matt and frame showing signs of age, it is almost certain have an acid matt. Have it reframed. In any framing, be sure to use archival grade matt board and backing as well as UV glass. There is also a UF-3 type plexiglass. I personally do not think its quality makes prints look their best, but it does offer light protection. Never frame a print so the glass is directly touching it. It needs the matt to buffer contact with the glass. Don’t use non-glare glass either. It will make your print look fuzzy. Don’t put a skimpy matt on it to make use of a frame you already have that is “almost” big enough. Many framers will try to get by with 2 ½ inch wide matts, but I believe at least a 3 inch matt will set any print off more impressively. A white or cream color matt, or even a pale grey depending on the print is generally better than black. Some matt board has a core of black so the cut, beveled edge next to the print exhibits a black line. This can be quite effective with many prints. Remember the principle that the matt and frame should protect and compliment the print, not overpower it. Some print dealers offer excellent framing services. Your best bet is to always use a professional framer.

Look for a location to hang your print that is not in direct sunlight, or will get reflected light, or will be lit by fluorescent light.

These are enemies of paper. Too much humidity is also harmful and can cause the paper to develop mildew. For this reason, don’t hang prints in your bathroom or kitchen or store them in a basement. If you have a fireplace, avoid putting prints over the mantle as smoke and soot can seep into even the best framed print.

If you store your print, lay it flat.

There are drawer cabinets made specifically for storing prints. These are made of wood as well as metal. Many collectors believe wood is superior because heat is not transferred to the paper inside as quickly and the wood absorbs humidity whereas metal might produce condensation inside the drawer. While these drawbacks are true, they would likely occur only in extreme conditions like a burning or flooded building, or, if you live in a very hot, humid area.

If you are a beginning collector you may not be able to invest in a specific piece of furniture for a, so far, small collection. There are archival boxes available that would accommodate many prints and be very adequate storage. Photographic supply shops usually carry these. Make sure you place acid free white tissue paper between each print. If the prints you purchased were framed with old, browned, acid matting or backing, which is frequently the case if you purchased from an estate sale, local auction, or from individuals who are not print dealers, remove the print from this material, have it cleaned and store the print wrapped in acid free white tissue with a piece of foam core or other rigid acid free backing to prevent it being bent or creased. Many collectors just enjoy their prints by going through their storage areas periodically.

Remember to show yourself the same courtesy you extended to the print dealer and first wash your hands thoroughly or wear those white cotton gloves when you handle your own prints. Protect your investment!