Buying Limited Edition Prints
What you need to know
by Joe Sigel
My goal here is to give some basic information that every art print buyer should know. As an informed consumer you will be better able to understand the issues of publisher, medium, edition size, certificate of authenticity and the term “secondary market”.
PUBLISHER: In the fine art world the publisher is the company who contracts with an artist to print an edition. The publisher is usually responsible for the printing and the marketing of the artist’s work. By printing an edition, many art collectors are able to enjoy the same image, and at a greatly reduced price from the original painting.
MEDIUM: Artists have printed in many media over the years, including linocuts, woodcuts, stone lithographs, etchings, serigraphs and, most recently, Iris inkjet prints, often called giclees. Most limited edition prints that have been published in the last 20 years have been either lithographs or serigraphs.
Lithographs are printed using a lithography press, similar to a print shop’s printing press. The number of colors is usually very limited.
A serigraph, on the other hand, uses a different screen for each and every color in the painting. So you may have an 80 or even 100 color serigraph. Each color is laid on one at a time, usually by hand. Hence the term “hand pulled serigraph.” Serigraphy is a very expensive and time consuming process. But the buildup of one color over another on a multi-color serigraph leads to a superbly rich print, unmatched by any other medium. Such serigraphs are truly “original limited edition prints” because of the hand made nature of them.
The giclee Iris ink jet print has gained popularity among art publishers over the past few years. The ultra fine nozzle size on the inkjets allows millions of different colors to be rapidly applied. Both serigraphs and giclees may be done on canvas as well as acid free museum quality papers. Although one medium is not necessarily better than another, the serigraph has stood the test of time for maintaining its brilliant colors and producing limited edition prints that look great many years after being printed.
EDITION SIZE: The size of an edition is the TOTAL number of pieces printed by the publisher and includes all artist proofs (AP), printer’s proofs (PP), “Roman numeral” pieces and all other pieces signed and numbered of that image. Therefore, though your piece may have an edition number of 150/295, the TOTAL edition size may be substantially higher than 295, depending on the number of AP’s, PP’s, etc.
In general, the smaller the edition size the better, but don’t pass up a piece you love because the total edition size is high. Some publishers choose to make a larger edition size so that they can reduce the cost of the print to the collector.
CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY: The “cert” as it is called is a statement issued originally by the publisher stating the total edition size, the edition number of the piece being sold, the year published, the fine art printer and the medium. Though the cert is nice to have, certs are frequently lost by the original owner and, therefore, are rarely available for older limited edition prints. You may ask the gallery you are purchasing the piece from for their gallery cert. With or without a certificate of authenticity, just remember that the selling gallery is responsible for delivering to you an authentic piece, if that is how they represented it. Deal with a reputable gallery and you will have no worry. If you ever discover that any art you purchased was misrepresented, you have legal recourse, with or without a Certificate of Authenticity.
SECONDARY MARKET: The “secondary market” in the art print industry refers to the resale market. That is, the publisher is the PRIMARY market because he is the original source of the edition of prints. When the edition has sold out from the publisher, who usually sells only to retail art galleries, then the secondary market takes over. If you go into a gallery in search of a particular print that is sold out, that does not mean the piece is unavailable.
What it does mean is that the gallery must search through secondary market broker-dealers, such as Art on 5th, for the piece. Also, since the print is sold out, you must expect to pay more for it than if it were still available to the gallery from the publisher and not sold out.