Bev Doolittle | Limited Edition Prints

By Myrna  Zanetell

Frame House Gallery of Louisville, KY, began marketing the first limited-edition prints in 1967, and within a decade, sales of this innovative product had reached full stride. Robert Bateman, Terry Redlin and Bev Doolittle became a magical triad of offset lithographic print artists: Purchasing one of their images was like placing funds in a blue-chip stock.

Indeed, when it comes to producing a return on money invested, the art of Bev Doolittle is in a class by itself. Pintos, issued for $65 in 1979, reputedly sold in the early ’90s for up to $10,500. Numerous other Doolittle prints such as Woodland Encounter, The Forest Has Eyes, Spirit of the Grizzly and Let My Spirit Soar continue to command four-digit prices. What ingredients came together to initiate this phenomenon, and are they still present in today’s market?

“Bev Doolittle created the phenomenon of the ‘investment print,’” says Ben Dodson, owner of Dodson Galleries, Oklahoma City, OK. “At first her camouflage images were a wonderfully fresh idea. But when prints such as Pintos and Forest Has Eyes began to sell out and soar in value, collectors discovered a profit motive behind purchasing art. People got caught up in the investment momentum, often purchasing one print to hang on the wall and two more to store under the bed and sell later.”

Dave Usher, president of Greenwich Workshop, the publishing house that first introduced Doolittle’s prints, admitted that to a certain extent her success has been a matter of having the right idea the right time. [Subsequent to this interview, Usher died in an accident. See the obituary on page 128.] Usher explained, “People were drawn to the camouflage aspect, and they shared their enthusiasm with their friends. Bev’s imagery also referenced Native American spirituality and environmental awareness—two increasingly popular issues.”

Usher emphasized that Doolittle’s personality greatly influenced her buying public. “When I first met Bev and her husband, they were selling her work at sidewalk craft fairs,” he said. “Even though Bev is now a superstar, she has retained that same down-to-earth, approachable quality. When you look at the line of fans waiting to meet her, you see everything from men in suits to bikers in leather jackets. Her work has universal appeal.”

Robert Avellano, director of California’s B&R Gallery, says, “Bev has a remarkable talent, but creative marketing has played a major role in sustaining the demand for her work. Several of her pieces were ‘personal commissions,’ which meant the edition size was limited to the number of prints ordered during a short time frame. Thus they were automatically ‘sold out at the publisher,’ and subsequent purchasers had to go to the secondary market, which drove up prices.” Doolittle also set a record for edition size of limited-edition prints in 1989, issuing just under 70,000 of her commissioned piece Sacred Ground.

Usher said that because the economy was strong and people were willing to pay a higher price for certain images, the secondary print market remained viable for nearly six years. However, he has seen a definite downturn since 1994.

Avellano concurs: “I believe print prices have peaked. Many of the ’80s print collectors are now more interested in selling than buying, and first-time buyers have a great deal more product out there from which to choose.”

Buying prints as an investment is definitely out of fashion. A recent survey of 2,000 print galleries in the United States and Canada conducted by InformArt Magazine revealed that collectors are purchasing prints for decoration, not to make money.

Dodson no longer encourages his customers to purchase prints as an investment. He explains, “The ’80s investors often purchased as many as 10 prints by a popular artist and then sat on them, assuming they would appreciate. By the early ’90s this trend was over. Currently a print may rise in value for a few months following issue, but appreciation seldom continues. In fact, a year after issue a print often declines in value.”

However, Peggy Kinstler, editor of Art Expediter, a publication that tracks the secondary print market, feels that if buyers exercise careful judgment, limited-edition prints can still be a good investment.

If you’re buying for investment, consider these guidelines:

1. Purchase prints at issue price or slightly higher for the best return on your investment. Look for small editions because they will sell out faster than larger ones.
2. Look for artists whose prints have a proven track record when it comes to appreciation, e.g., Redlin, Doolittle and Stephen Lyman.
3. Educate yourself by reading as much as possible about the artist and the print market.
4. Deal with a reputable gallery and a knowledgeable staff.
5. Watch for trends and pick out new artists before they become hot.
6. Buy artists proofs or remarques. They usually appreciate more than the regular edition.
7. For best resale value, do not frame prints. Keep them in their original envelopes and retain all print documentation.
8. When figuring print appreciation, take into consideration that you will have to pay a commission to a gallery for the resale service. You can also advertise prints in local newspapers.
9. Follow the market and sell when prices peak.

As always, the best advice to follow when purchasing art is buy what you love. That way, even if the resale price never goes up,  you still have an image whose true value lies in its aesthetic qualities.

Featured in June 1997