Until recently, buying art prints was a way for people to appreciate art at a low cost.

Albrecht Durer, who was the father of printmaking, cranked out print after print of his wood cuts as a way of getting the message to the masses. But now, with the heavy emphasis on investment in the art market and the prices of artworks out of proportion with the aesthetic enjoyment one derives from them, the print market has become tainted by a sense of easy profit.

Art print tax shelters have sprung up around the country since stockbrokers and accountants discovered that print publishing was not specifically covered by the strict 1976 Tax Reform Act which cracked down on shelters in such industries as oil, gas exploration, farming and motion pictures.

Selling prints to the public has also boomed with such key price-determining words as "limited edition," "artist proofs" and "signed by the artist" bandied around somewhat loosely.

According to the New York State Attorney General's office, hundreds of thousands of art prints are sold every year (for an annual $60 million), some in galleries, some in department stores and others through mail order catalogues. There is a print for every budget, and the works of most major artist are available in a print.

The attorney general's office has become knowledgeable in such things as it is currently investigating decptive practices in the selling of prints. In a recent hearing on the art print makret, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams noted that "misleading appeals have been made to the public about an object's unique qualities or its investment potential. Inexpensive reproductions created by photo-mechanical processes have been sold to the public as valuable originials or rare prints."

The attorney general is not the only one looking into the art print market. The Internal Revenue Service has begun to investigate print tax shelters, and legislation has been introduced in Congress that would ensure that no artwork could be reproduced and distributed without the artist's authorization.

Art generally has few rules, and the government has tended to stay out of regulating an area it admittedly knows little about.

For one thing, there is the problem of definition. Marcel Duchamp claimed that an artist was someone who defined art, a tautology which works equally well in reverse and which has never been challenged. As much as artists, dealers are dealers because they call themselves such. There is no license or degrees or certification for dealers -- all on need to do is rent an office.

Someone with knowledge of tax shelter laws or advanced printing techniques can enter the art market as a seller of an art print tax shelter or as a dealer of prints themselves. On occasion, someone will do both.

Tax shelters permit wealthy taxpayers to reduce the amount of taxes they are required to pay over a number of years by letting them invest in a business venture and then claim tax deductions equal to the sum actually invested.

In an art print shelter, investors agree to pay an artist (who may or may not be well-known) a large amount of money -- say, $100,000 -- for a plate from which the promoter will publish and sell prints and possibly reproductions through various retail outlets. The artist may not get all of the $100,000 but often a down-payment on that amount, the remainder to be paid through profits from sales. Artists, however, are generally happy to get a decent fee up front which helps them begin a new project or just pay some bills.

The value of the plate is usually appraised considerably higher than the value of the limited edition produced from it, making deductions and tax credits proportionately larger and allowing the investor to save in taxes three or four times the amount of his actual cash outlay.