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This month's topic...

Does the Type of Paper Used Affect an Artwork's Value?

It is a sad fact that most paper produced commercially today is planned for a short life span: indeed a great number of books and works on paper since the 1850's are disintegrating faster than they can be transferred into a digital storage medium. Only lignin-free paper used before this time safeguards the printed image; in fact the paper of Gutenburg's Bible printed in 1450 shows little deterioration. If the medium is the message, the artist will choose the best quality paper to ensure that his message will at least endure.

Today art paper manufacture prides itself on acid-free pure rag composition that does not alter with exposure to light and is versatile enough to be compatible with all printing processes. A premium is paid for the thicker, often textured, hand-made paper, which can be a work of art in itself. Identifying watermarks in the paper can sometimes provide PROVENANCE for the piece if this has been recorded.

When examining a print for purchase, look for impurities in poorly made paper that can be a breeding ground for mold spores and FOXING (rusty-brown staining). These papers should be kept away from other prints as they can cross-contaminate. Do be aware that the ever-so-faint brown or black spot on the paper will inevitably grow larger and flourish, and can be the basis for a price reduction (at least if only to factor in restoration). Often these blemishes can be bleached out, but any restorative process can weaken the paper and may abbreviate its life.

Also look for the effects of lignin, or acid contamination of the paper, appearing as a light orange coloration through to darker shades of tan. Usually such contamination appears from the outer edges in, where exposure to oxygen occurs more frequently. In a print that has been mounted, even the very best of pure rag paper can be contaminated if the mount has been cut from a non-acid free board. It is the cut edge of the mount board that, being open to oxidation, releases the noxious chemicals, which invade the integrity of the artist's sheet (more on this in the August "Essential Advice" on Framing).

In general, if the rag content of a paper sheet is high enough, the browning process or foxing can usually be successfully reversed in restoration.

Storage and handling of prints is important, too. Prints should never be stored in wooden drawers, because of the inevitable lignin transfer from the wood to the paper. In addition, wood can harbor insects and the glues used in manufacture can provide contaminants. Worldwide, the best and most conscientious of museums use exclusively metal drawer and storage systems. To further prevent any cross-contamination between prints, or even transfer of the printing media, tissue interleaving is recommended. In the hey-day of print collecting at the turn of the last century ("Come up and see my etchings some time") the proud collector always wore white cotton gloves when showing his prints….this was to prevent the transfer of acids in the skin onto the paper.

Prints that have been over-exposed to ultra-violet light, which discolors the paper and can irrevocably bleach the medium used for the image, are often beyond repair and should be seen as a compromise purchase.

The connaisseur's rule is that original size of the paper as per artist and workshop instruction must remain intact: any trimming of the edges of 20th C. prints radically affects the price. A folded edge to fit the picture into a frame is preferable to cutting, as good rag paper is highly resilient and can be steamed back into shape. The collector is a lot more forgiving with works by, say, Duerer or Rembrandt, where a few hundred years ago it was often the custom to trim the edges right back into the printed margin. Today, the integrity of the original paper is of prime importance.

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