A GUIDE TO LIMITED EDITION ARTWORKS

It seems as though buying art is exclusively reserved to the one percent: a fact that annoys not only those who might want to collect art themselves, but also other participants of the art world as well. A solution to this problem, which appears to be one of exclusivity, is the introduction of limited editions. For decades, it has been common practice for artists to sell both individual originals, and so-called limited editions or multiples. Editions consist of a certain, often predetermined number of reproductions. These editions are not sold in addition to the original artwork, but rather are considered original pieces in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are based on a preexisting work. However, in contrast to an individual original, the price of the edition is divided among all copies, making the each piece of the edition more affordable. Unfortunately, most limited editions are sold to connoisseurs and well-connected insiders, as one usually has to know a plethora of information to understand what exactly editions consist of and whether or not it would make sense to buy a particular edition of a piece. We have taken the liberty of putting together a list of things for you to keep in mind.

HOW ARE EDITIONS MADE?

To produce a limited edition, usually the only condition required is that the work be identically reproducible. Therefore, in most cases, these are works that the artist has already intended for an edition, or occasionally those to which he or she might be too emotionally attached to be willing to sell the original. Most of the editions available on the market are prints of paintings, graphics, or collages, but sculptures can also be cast several times, objects assembled, or photographs developed multiple times. Artwork created using printing techniques such as linocut, screen printing, or etching was therefore prevalent before the rise of digital reproduction was able to match the qualitative standards for a given work of art. They are still however a common tool for artists to use when publishing editions. 

Another important factor is the differences in material between the printing of a limited edition and the printing of, say, a poster. For limited editions, as with any other original work, a strong emphasis is placed on the choice of paper, archivability of ink, and ensuring the highest print quality: these qualities are usually collectively described by the term “printed in museum quality”.

WHAT SHOULD BE CONSIDERED IN TERMS OF THE LIMITATION OF THE EDITION?

The artist usually sets the limitation, i.e. the number of individual copies. Smaller editions of up to about 20 pieces are particularly popular with collectors as they are inherently more exclusive and thus sought after. Runs of up to 50 pieces are not as common but still generally within the range of the acceptable, editions of more than 100 pieces tend to only be justified if the artist is extremely well-known and/or given original is simply unaffordable to most, due to size or material. You should keep this in mind when aiming for a piece within a large edition of several hundred pieces, unless of course it really is purely the artistic value or art historical context you are interested in.

THREE FEATURES THAT EVERY EDITION SHOULD HAVE

At some point the question arises as to what distinguishes an edition from a poster or a regular print. The motif might be the same for all three, but you will certainly notice a couple of differences right away. Artists usually sign their editions in pencil at the bottom of the image and number each individual copy, in an edition of 15 pieces for example with the numbers 1/15 through 15/15. If you are thinking about purchasing a limited edition, you have to pay attention to the signature and numbering, as well as making sure to get a certificate featuring the same number as the print.

BEWARE OF COUNTERFEITING

It certainly matters whether you buy an edition on the primary or secondary market. If a work is offered for sale for the first time, for example, through a gallery, the artist himself or through another company such as collasta, this is a work from the primary market. In this case you generally do not have to worry about the authenticity of the work. However, it gets trickier when dealing with the secondary market, where you should always insist on a certificate of authenticity, especially since a lot of work is offered without proper certification. If no certificate is available, the risk of falling victim to counterfeiting increases enormously, as limited editions of renowned artists are among the the most popular targets for counterfeiters. This is especially the case with famous artists of the twentieth century, such as Picasso, Chagall or Dalí, who themselves created thousands of prints and therefore made an informed overview of the immense body of work virtually impossible for non-experts. As a rule of thumb, the more famous the artist, the more cautious one should be or, in other words: if it seems too good to be true, it is probably not true. Another, more practical, reason why limited editions of famous artists are often forged is that the value of each item is usually too low to warrant expensive tests by experts, thus making it more likely that the forgery goes unnoticed.

IMPORTANT ABBREVIATIONS

For editions that are not bought on the primary market, the classification of the signature is also relevant. Unfortunately, if a work is offered only as “signed” or “signed in the plate / in print”, that edition is not necessarily made by the artist. If you are dealing with a work from the primary market, a certificate is sufficient to guarantee the authenticity of given edition. In the secondary market it is advisable to stick to works “signed by hand” and to seek additional insurance through certification and trusted sellers. Sometimes an edition will not feature the usual number but the abbreviation “A / P” which stands for “artist proof” and is synonymous with the variants “a.p.” “AP” and “e.a.” for “épreuves d’artiste”. Copies marked with these abbreviations are made by the artist outside the regular limitation, in order to show the edition in exhibitions and to keep a copy for their own records. The number of artist’s copies available (except for very small editions) should not exceed 10% of the total number in circulation. The number of AP’s made should always be included in the rest of edition, for example “20 + 2AP”, otherwise there is a potential risk of diluting the edition. For this reason, artist’s copies are not actually intended for sale. Artist’s copies that do make it onto the market are usually particularly popular with collectors, especially since they can exhibit subtle differences to the rest of the edition, if the artist’s copy.

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