Should you buy a Limited-Edition Print or Sculpture?

If artists produced only original pieces of art, the overwhelming majority of people would not be able to enjoy art. The cost of the original would be so prohibitive that only the wealthy few would be able to pay the price an artist would have to demand to continue to ply his or her trade. And that would be a real shame because art has the ability to inspire, to decorate, to turn an ordinary space into a personal haven of relaxation and enjoyment.

A little known fact is that most artists generate far more sales and income from limited editions than by selling original pieces. Edvard Munch, for instance, is currently the world’s most expensive artist sold at auction. Limited edition prints account for 91% of those transactions and 22% of the revenue. And, Pablo Picasso is not only one of the most expensive artists in the world, he was also one of the most prolific, especially in prints. In fact, in terms of transactions, the heart of his market consists of more than 60% of prints while his works on canvas represent only 2% of his total transactions.

The reality of the art world is that limited edition prints are enjoyed – and purchased – by very many people.

Limited editions can be made of flat art such as paintings and photographs as well as sculptures. Let’s discuss flat art first.

History of Limited Editions
The earliest prints were made in China in the ninth century, around the time that paper was invented. Prints were produced by drawing or carving an image onto a hard surface such as a wood block, metal plate, or stone. This surface was then inked and the image was transferred to paper by the application of pressure, thus creating an impression, or print. Later, contact between Asia and Europe facilitated the spread of this form of reproduction, and by the fifteenth century printmaking had become popular all over Europe.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century art prints used to be published as open editions. As many copies were printed as could be sold. Printing and selling was often a process that lasted several decades, sometimes even more than one century if the prints were historical maps or prints of a famous artists’ work. People bought prints because they were curious about the unknown, and they couldn’t afford to decorate their homes with original paintings. Steel printing plates were real treasures and were often sold by one publisher to the next.

Artists began to sign and number each impression around the turn of the 20th century to assure that only the editions they intended to make would be in circulation. Until recently, limited edition prints were made by etching a metal cylinder, linocut or woodcut, or by lithographic or screen printing techniques. But reproduction techniques began to change with the introduction of inkjet printing technology in the early 1990s.

Today Giclée prints offer the highest quality reproduction standards and the ability to produce archival quality prints. The result is breathtaking. Buyers prefer Giclées among all forms of limited edition reproductions. Giclées are produced from high resolution digital scans of original art or photographs and then printed with archival quality inks onto archival quality papers. Another benefit of a Giclée is that they may be produced on a wide range of surfaces including vinyl, canvas, and last but not least, various weights and textures of paper or card. Each step in this process and format determines the value of the Giclée and how long it may last without change – sometimes hundreds of years.

Mass produced prints are produced in large quantities and used for posters and other short-term display and have little value. Limited edition fine art prints should always be numbered and hand signed by the artist, but they may not use the technology and materials of a Giclée. A Giclée will always be identified as a Giclée because its value is considerably more than a regular limited edition print.

What Makes a Limited Edition Special?
A limited edition is exactly what is indicated; the print run or edition is limited in number. This can be as few as four or five but usually not more than 100. An edition marked 25/99 indicates that it is the 25th print in an edition of 99 prints. Once the quantity of the limited edition is set it is never changed and every print sold should be documented. Given the choice between two identical works of art, one with documentation and one without, knowledgeable buyers will choose the one with documentation over the one without approximately 100% of the time.

Since a digital file prints out exactly the same way every time you print it, no matter when you print it, the quickest and simplest way to differentiate one image from the next is by the date it was printed. Even though a print may be one of a larger edition, a date individualizes it, and makes it a little bit unique. In fact, buyers generally like dated art, especially when their dates precede other buyers’ dates.

So how is the value of limited edition print set?

  • Most important is the reproduction process, with a Giclée print at the top of the value chain.
  • Numbered and signed is best
  • The smaller the edition, the better
  • The number “one” (1/xx) of an edition is most in demand
  • Numbered is better than an Artist Proof ( A.P.)
  • An Artist Proof is better than unnumbered (open edition)

A signed and dated Certificate of Authenticity should be provided with each image with the print’s title, paper type, printer type, ink type, date printed, edition size, and other particulars. As a buyer you will appreciate the documentation, as good documentation tends to increase the value of the art.

Now what about sculpture?
Most sculptures take months – sometimes years – to create. Every process is complicated, time consuming and very costly. One tiny mistake typically means the sculptor has to destroy the work and start over. You can easily understand why fine art sculpture is quite expensive.

Sculptors make limited editions too, although the quantities are generally much lower than for flat art. They will be signed and dated and you should get a Certificate of Authenticity with the purchase, just as for flat art. In reality, however, limited edition sculptures are very original. Unlike a Giclée, which has the capability of being a perfect reproduction, a limited edition sculpture process has more variables and there will always be some slight “original” difference between each piece in the edition. That difference may only be noticeable to the sculptor and it may take precision measurements or a microscope to find it, but it will be there.

Limited editions certainly do not hold the value of an original piece of art, but they do have considerable value. In fact, there are limited editions of works of art valued in the millions of dollars. More importantly, limited editions bring the beauty and appreciation of art to a larger audience, which is why many artists create their works in the first place. Things of beauty have the greatest value when they can be appreciated by more than a few. And if an artist is masterful, is it not best to help that artist display that talent, to earn a decent living so he or she can concentrate on creativity and artistry?