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Treasures: French etching isn't that rare

Published: Friday, June 22 2007 12:04 a.m. MDT

This French etching circa 1935 is titled "The Water Well," although the well is hard to see.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Dear Helaine and Joe: This etching has a label on the back that reads, "Original etching by Florence, Title: The Water Well." There is also an upside down triangle with "SZL" inside and the statement, "Etchings carrying this label are Genuine Original French Etchings Imported from Paris. ..."

We would like to know about this piece. — S.H., Andover, Mass.

Dear S.H.: To understand this particular picture it is necessary to go back to 1928 when Sidney Zoltan Lucas founded "Camilla Lucas," which encompassed a wholesale art publishing house and a retail art gallery. This business was both wholesale and retail and dealt in reproductions of antique, modern and contemporary prints. It also sold original art including etchings, lithographs and paintings.

This enterprise is now known as the Phyllis Lucas Gallery Old Print Center and is named after Sidney Lucas' wife, who died in 1995. The business is now run by their son, Michael Lucas, who kindly supplied the above information.

Starting in the 1930s and continuing into the 1950s, Sidney Lucas traveled to Europe periodically and contracted with French artists to publish their work under the banner of the "Paris Etching Society." Pieces published by Lucas are marked with a triangle with Lucas' initials inside and sometimes "PES" for the Paris Etching Society.

The various artists assigned names to the their images, and although this one is titled "The Water Well," this feature is very hard to see in the finished etching. It is actually located in the very center of the picture but is rather small and sandwiched between two houses that are much more imposing and eye catching than the well.

We do not know who the artist "Florence" might have been, but that is not entirely surprising because the history of a number of the artists used by Lucas is hard to trace. However, the most important artist Lucas worked with was Salvador Dali. In fact, the Old Print Gallery was the first North American publisher of Dali's works, and the relationship continued with Phyllis Lucas after Sidney's death in the 1960s.

Although S.H. failed to mention it, this print is also signed on the front with pencil in the margins (white space) below the image area. We cannot read what is actually written, but we suspect these notations are the artist's actual signature, which is located on the right, and the title of the piece written on the left.

As is noted on the label on the back, this piece is an etching, which means that it was created either by cutting lines into a metal plate with some sort of stylus or by using acid to corrode the metal plate in certain areas to form a design. After this was done, the plate was inked and pressed against a sheet of paper in a hand press.

These etchings were originally done in black, but color was added later either by hand painting with watercolors or by overlaying color in a second printing. How many actual prints of "The Water Well" were made is unknown to us, but generally numbers ran in the 350 to 500 range.

French etchings such as this one are not particularly rare and they are considered by most serious collectors to be decoration rather than fine art. The piece in today's question is probably circa 1935, and we have found them priced on the Internet for as little as $85. But $250 seems to be the more prevalent figure that online retailers are seeking for this type of etching.


Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of the "Country Living: American Glassware — What is it? What is it Worth?" (House of Collectibles, $19.95). Questions can be mailed to them at P.O. Box 12208, Knoxville, TN 37912-0208.

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