Probably more art prints are destroyed in one decade by a lack of knowledge about the proper care and conservation than by wars and natural catastrophes. The advice given in this article is valid for all kinds of old and modern prints alike.
Collecting art prints used to be an exclusive domain of a small number of collectors decades ago. They kept their treasures in albums or collector boxes and stored them in cabinets and drawers. They may not have been familiar with aspects of conservation but intuitively they did the right thing.
The art market has changed. With rising incomes and an easier access to buying art prints, the art market is shifting from a collector's market to a consumer market. Prints are bought to decorate homes. They are framed and hung on walls. And if kept improperly, the condition of this wonderful art print of yours will be diminished faster than you can imagine.
Works of art on paper are by tendency fragile and the aging of a print is a natural chemical and biological process. But with the pollution of our environment and different living conditions, those works of art that survived several centuries quite well, could deteriorate within only a few months. Let's look at the "enemies" of your precious prints.
Claude Monet was an avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints. He framed them and hung them on the walls of his home. Today his home is a museum and you can see these prints how they look like after a little more than a hundred years. The colors are completely faded out - destroyed by light! Exposing prints to direct sunshine but also artificial light from bulbs is one of the worst and most frequent mistakes.
Humidity causes molding and foxing. Foxing is characterized by ugly brownish spots sprinkled over the print. Storing art prints in a basement with high humidity and without air circulation will inevitably cause damage. Furthermore, humidity attracts pests like silverfish - another danger for your fine art print.
Until the second half of the twentieth century, central heating was unknown in most houses and apartments and heating energy was expensive. Today most homes have at least one heating radiator in each room and are chronically over-heated during the winter time. A permanent humidity below 40 percent will dry out the paper and make it brittle.
Museums keep a constant temperature in their exhibition rooms. Extreme temperature fluctuations cause expansion and contractions of paper and makes it uneven.
Pollution comes in the form of acids in papers and furniture, dust, dirt or the sweating from your hands. Also insects as a kind of natural pollution fall into this category.
Acids can be in the paper on which your etching or lithograph was printed or it can be in the mat or folder paper. It causes the colors to bleach out and it causes discoloration of the paper. Of course, you have no influence on the paper of your print. It should be acid-free. Maybe the most endurable paper is the Japanese handmade washi paper.
You may not like to hear this. But the best preservation for your art print is not to frame them, and keep them in cabinets, folders or collector boxes instead.
Special metal cabinets for storing prints are ugly and expensive but best. A normal cabinet does not have the necessary depth to store large sized prints. Metal cabinets are better than wooden ones because metal has no chemical emissions.
The prints should never be stored in a way that two prints are in direct contact with each other. Put each art print into a separate folder of acid-free paper and store them in horizontal position.
In winter time rooms are often overheated and the humidity is too low. Relative humidity should be between 40% and 60%. Place bowls with water on radiators. Not only your art works on paper but also your antique furniture will appreciate it. Do not hang an art print over heating sources. And if you really must decorate your bathroom with paper art, use a poster or a cheap reproduction without any value.
You should check the placement of your prints regularly for insects. Wormholes or worm tracks are caused by silverfish pests and destroy the aesthetic pleasure and the financial value of your prints.
Gone are the times when an antiquity or other work of art was kept in the family and handed down from generation to generation. Buying and selling has become part of the thrill of collecting art. And with the Internet the transportation business has grown considerably.
The transportation of prints requires excellent packaging. Prints should be sent flat whenever possible. If a print is too large and has to be rolled and sent in a tube, it should be taken out immediately after it arrived at its destination.
Not all prints can be rolled. If the paper is too thick and not pliable enough it might break. Rolling prints might also lead to a loss of color prints, mainly if thick oil-based colors are used. Be careful when you consider to roll prints.
The print package should be extremely stiff. Putting the print between two light plastic boards or very stiff card boards is a good idea. The prints should be placed into separate folders and paper or plastic envelopes and be fixed against sliding (Tape the envelope on the board!).
Leave enough space between the margins of the prints and the edge of the protecting boards. Remember: The secret of safe print transportation is to prevent the prints from sliding inside the package during transport.
Let me become very clear (... and many people will hate me for this statement!) The only way to preserve the perfect condition of an art print is NOT to frame it and NOT to hang it on the wall. If you really want to expose it to light, then not longer than for two weeks, and not exposed to direct (sun-) light.
Of course, hiding your prints in folders, boxes and cabinets is like having a yummy piece of cake and not eat it. And of course, it is your right to do with your art print what ever you want because you paid for it and it is your property (But please forget these words if you are the owner of the latest copy of a print by for instance Sharaku! Then you have some responsibility for preserving a cultural heritage, in my view.).
Please be aware that you have to make a decision between best conservation and consumption - and framing and hanging it on the wall is "consuming" the print. You may argue that this is what art prints were made for - hanging them on the walls and enjoying them! You are right, but be aware that nobody will pay you record prices for your prints a few years later because of the condition problems.
An excellent solution to this dilemma for serious collectors is to decorate your home with inexpensive prints or even with good reproductions. And keep your valuable original art prints by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Utamaro, Harunobu, Hokusai, Zhang Minjie, Luo Guirong, or Zhang Biao well-stored in your cabinet.
So you decided to frame a few of your "treasures" on paper. Well, but do it at least wisely!
First of all the prints shall not have any direct contact with the glass. Therefore a window mat should always be used - and of course an acid-free mat of archival quality.
What kind of glass should you use - normal glass or acrylic glazing? Glass is less expensive but acrylic plastic is considered by most as the better solution. It causes no condensation and acrylic plastic is offered with ultraviolet light absorbers. Ask your framer for special plexiglass with protection filters against ultraviolet light.
And last but not least it cannot break. Plastic glass comes mostly as non-reflecting glass. With the exemption of very expensive museum glass it is not hundred percent clear and makes your print look a bit fuzzy.
A comment about tapes: Art galleries, dealers and framers use special adhesive tapes - so-called archival tapes - to fix the print to the mat. It is not so much damaging to your print. However it dries out within one or two years and falls off. If possible, avoid tapes at all.
Now that your art print is perfectly framed, where to place it? As mentioned above, please hang it somewhere not exposed to direct sunlight. Do not place lamps too close to it. Not only the bright light but also heat given off by the bulbs can damage.
In some publications I found the advice not to touch art prints with your hands and rather wear white cotton gloves. It sounds plausible, but I have never seen anybody doing it and I am not doing it either - unless the print is very old and valuable. But I always wash my hands before touching an art work on paper.
It sounds trivial, but I want to mention it. Do never trim a print by cutting off its margins or parts of it. Whether "trimmed" or "untrimmed" is essential for a serious collector and thus for the value of your art print.
Author: Dieter Wanczura