Master etching for $20? You'd be surprised

You can easily spend a fortune on fine prints. What's less well known is that it's also very possible to assemble a good but more modest collection with an initial purchase of a fine Old Master etching for

As a matter of fact, with good fortune and perseverance, one can still find extraordinary print bargains at out-of-the-way auctions or in thrift shops. And I still occasionally hear of prints worth hundreds of dollars purchased for the price of their frames -- usually $2 or $3 -- from individuals cleaning out their attics.

Everything considered, however, the best way to begin a print collection is by visiting a reputable print gallery and browsing among the hundreds of prints on stock in such a place. And for this there is no other place quite like the Associated American Artists gallery here. There are no fashionable distinctions about what it will or will not handle. The only criteria are that a print must be an original, that is, pulled from a plate or a stone designed (and, if possible, worked on) by the artist. It must be a work of art (however minor) and be in good condition. (If a print has flaws, these are carefully pointed out.)

The AAA has once again assembled its annual Old Master Print Exhibition. This one, its 20th, while particularly rich in the works of lesser-known but excellent European printmakers of the 15th through 18th centuries, also includes fair to superb impressions of prints by Rembrandt, Durer, Mantegna, Callot, Cranach, and Canaletto.

As usual, the range of subjects is broad, the quality, as a whole, high, and the prices reasonable. There are several good etchings and engravings listed at ,000 and up.

A fairly good late edition of Rembrandt's 1651 etching "The Bathers" is selling for $600, and another etching, "The Blindness of Tobit," can be had for etching "Christ on the Mount of Olives" which can be picked up for $500, as well as a good impression of his "St. Anthony" going for $4,250.

I would most heartily recommend that anyone made curious about collecting by this particular print show at the AAA ask the gallery staff for further information. They are knowledgeable and courteous -- and can show the potential collector literally thousands of other prints from which to choose.

There are few greater pleasures in life for a print collector (or even for a potential collector) than to see row upon row of boxes filled with prints awaiting inspection. And this is especially true if his tastes are wide, and he is open to discoveries and surprises. A visitor to this gallery can parcel out his time among 15th-century engravings, late 17th-century etchings, 19th-century lithographs, the graphic art of our own WPA days, and the very latest color serigraphs delivered that very morning by a promising young printmaker.

AAA, in other words, is not only a gallery, it is an institution. It is the place where the lithographs of the young Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry were originally published and sold in the 1930s, and where old- time printmakers still receive the respect they deserve, and where they share wall space with the newest and most bushy-tailed of beginners.

This current AAA Old Master show exhibits this same open-minded attitude toward differing points of view, for it includes something from almost every style of printmaking practiced between the 15th and 18th centuries in Europe.

Of particular interest is a set of six delicately drawn landscape etchings by the 17th-century Dutch artist Waterloo, a set of four fine animal prints by Berchem, and a goodly number of fair to excellent works by Callot, Ostade, Raimondi, Beham, and Cranach -- as well as two intriguing, if minor, etchings by Ferdinand Bol (the last named proving once again how many etchers of the 17th century owed their graphic identities to Rembrandt).

As for Rembrandt himself, particular note should be taken of his lovely 1638 etching "Old Man Shading His Eyes With His Hand," and the fine impression of the rare "Diana at the Bath." Durer, on the whole, does not come off too well -- not because those of his prints shown are not of good quality but because none of his very greatest works are among them.

Canaletto, on the other hand, is beautifully represented by his etching "View of a Town With a Bishop's Tomb." It is a magnificent print which proves again how successfully a master printmaker can capture light, athomsphere, and "color" with nothing but a few hundred fine black lines if he sets his mind to it.

There are more than 300 prints on view by over 50 artists. Anyone interested in the full list is invited to write Associated American Artists, 663 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022 for a feww catalog of the exhibition -- or for further information about the collecting of fine prints.

The show itself will run through Aug. 21.

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