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The commercialization of the art business is nowhere more evident than in the marketing of reproduction prints, particularly giclees (computer prints of digital files) by businesses presenting themselves as fine art publishing companies. These days, many artists are also publishing digital prints of their art. The reproductions are many times presented as signed limited edition "fine art" prints and can sell for hundreds or occasionally even thousands of dollars.
The great majority, however, are nothing more than digital prints of scans or photographs of paintings, watercolors or works of art in other mediums (as opposed to original digital works of art created by digital artists entirely or in part on computers which ARE considered to be unique). Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with publishing, marketing, selling and collecting giclee prints as long as sellers properly represent what they're selling and buyers know what they're buying.
Unless sellers provide adequate information, people who don't understand what they're buying can think they're getting more than digital reproductions or copies of art. These prints are often available for sale with no explanations whatsoever other than that they're signed or limited, and unless they're told otherwise, some buyers believe they're buying art, not computer printout copies of art. The truth is that artists whose works of art are reproduced as prints usually have little or nothing to do with the hands-on production of these editions, their only participation typically being to sign their names and number the prints which takes maybe thirty seconds or a minute or so per print, assuming they're even signed.
The problem with how giclee prints are sometimes marketed is fourfold. First of all, many of these prints and giclees are sold in ways that confuse less sophisticated buyers. Second, some level of collectibility and/or investment potential may be implied by sellers, when in fact, these reproduction or "giclee" copies of works of art in other mediums are basically produced the same way as decorative mass-market prints and posters.
Third, the markup over production costs can sometimes be quite high with the bulk of the profits going to printing companies (aka fine art publishers) and to the galleries or websites that sell these prints rather than to the artists themselves. Fourth, it can be argued that every time someone buys one of these reproduction prints or giclees thinking they're buying original works of art, one less artist somewhere sells one less original work of art.
Even though reproduction print sales range well into the millions of dollars, artists do little to combat the misconceptions that sometimes characterize how these prints and giclees are marketed. Many feel powerless or have no interest in mobilizing, others ignore the problem out of elitism, while others decide to join on in and publish their own signed limited edition reproductions. No matter what the excuse or rationalization, as long as commercial print and giclee publishers continue to position their prints in ways that make them seem like something other than digital reproductions and more like original works of art, they'll continue to maintain and likely even increase their market share while artists will continue to come out on the short end.
Another unfortunate aspect of the reproduction print business is that a percentage of collectors stop buying art altogether when they finally realize what they've been getting for their money. The really bad news is that they can sometimes tell their friends to stay away from art as well. All art and all artists suffer every time this happens. Anyone who thinks they're buying original art, but later finds out they've bought something that only looks like original art will be really reluctant to ever approach artists or art galleries again.
That's a fact. In the meantime, commercial fine art print and giclee publishing companies and the galleries and websites that sell their products roll on, as do their ever-mutating terminologies and confusing explanations about what exactly they're selling. If you're a traditional printmaker or a digital artist who creates original digital art (not repros), you might well consider getting involved and informed on this issue, and learn how to explain the difference between your originals (including original digital works of art) and signed limited edition giclee reproduction computer prints of works of art in other mediums produced by commercial publishing companies.
Galleries that sell original art might get proactive on this matter as well and make concerted efforts to educate their clienteles about how to distinguish between original works of art and giclee or limited edition reproductions or copies of original works of art. Artists and their supporters should also consider lobbying for better disclosure laws and establishing industry standards and guidelines for labeling, representing and selling limited edition prints of all kinds (some states like New York and California already have them).
Criteria for labeling and describing reproduction limited edition copy prints should also be standardized, made easy to understand, and be required reading for potential buyers-- BEFORE they buy, not after. No matter what type of prints you make or sell, do your best to inform and educate the public about the differences between originals and reproductions. As for you collectors looking for the best in original limited edition prints like etchings, lithographs, screenprints, monotypes and more, from antique to contemporary, available from top national and international dealers, check out the International Fine Print Dealers Association website.
These people are exceptionally knowledgeable and sell only the real deal, not reproductions or copies. (ceramic art by Jun Kaneko)
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Collecting original art prints by famous artists has become increasingly popular now that people realize that they can actually afford it. There are no Rembrandt paintings to be had, at any price, but you don’t have live in a palace to own an original Rembrandt etching. Original prints by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse can be surprisingly affordable as well. So if you’re a new collector of original prints (or you’d like to be) read through this article before making any purchases—it may help you avoid a costly mistake.
1. Don’t buy a reproduction passed off as an original This is obvious, but how can you tell what’s a reproduction and what’s an original? One easy test is to examine the print under a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe. If the image breaks up into hundreds of tiny dots (called half-tones) then what you really have is a photo-offset lithograph, the most common type of reproduction. Your desktop printer will do something similar.
A genuine stone lithograph on the other hand will appear solid and substantial, even under magnification. However, not all types of reproductions have half-tones, so. . . 2. Check the size of the print against its documentation The measurements of a known print are always documented in the catalogue raisonné of that particular artist’s graphic work. It’s a matter of record, and the size should not change from one impression to another.
Take a look at the auction records and compare the print you’d like to buy against others offered on the market. . . if the size doesn’t measure up, don’t buy it! It may be helpful to know that etchings are measured by the platemark (the indentation around the image) and lithographs, silkscreens and woodcuts are usually measured by the image size itself (or by the total size of the sheet if there are no margins).
Heliogravure, photogravure or collotype reproductions are often reproduced in a size smaller than the original. 3. Don’t automatically assume it’s a 1st edition It may indeed have been printed from the artist’s original plate, stone or wood block (and thus would still be considered an original print). But many prints—just like books—went through several editions. An experienced dealer will know by the type of paper, the presence or absence of watermarks, the total size of the sheet and the overall quality of the impression.
First editions are almost always more valuable, so don’t assume. . . often this step requires a bit of detective work. 4. Check to see if it’s a lifetime impression Lifetime impressions are simply prints that were created during the artist’s lifetime. These prints will usually be more valuable, especially in the case of Old Masters like Albrecht Durer, Jacques Callot and Rembrandt. But don’t avoid posthumous printings entirely—they can be often an excellent value.
In addition, keep in mind that the date shown in the image (if the artist dated his composition) is the date of execution, not necessarily the date of printing. 5. Don’t be fooled by a Certificate of Authenticity Although it has become a trend for dealers to issue their own Certificates of Authenticity, these certificates really guarantee very little and are so easy to print up that they mean little (no matter how pretty the gold seal looks).
Far more useful is anything from the actual publisher of the piece, such as a justification de tirage or colophon. The publisher’s colophon is a page found in almost all twentieth century portfolios or volumes containing original prints, especially if they are limited editions. This will state when, where and by whom it was published, the size of the edition and the medium (lithograph, etching, etc.
). A colophon should also indicate if any impressions were signed by hand, which is helpful to know as well. And speaking of signatures. . . 6. Never assume it was really signed by the artist Since a print signed in pencil by the artist is worth more than the same composition unsigned, too many unscrupulous people have taken their genuine prints and forged the artist’s signature. Be especially careful when buying “signed” pieces by A-list artists such as Picasso, Joan Miro, Chagall, Salvador Dali, Matisse, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.
Check the number as well. If a print is numbered 17/100 (the 17th impression from a total edition of 100) but the documented size of that edition was only 50, then something isn’t right! Do as much research as you can; if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unsigned impressions aren’t always bad, either. Savvy art buyers will purposely look for unsigned impressions of the same print—knowing that aesthetically there is no difference, and the savings can be enormous.
7. Take time to research and understand the medium Lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens, pochoirs, linocuts, drypoints, aquatints and mezzotints are all prints, but each medium is created differently to achieve a different artistic effect. There is too much to explain in just a few words, but you’ll want to study up on this before making any major purchase. For instance, find out if the same composition was first executed in another medium.
A print may be a genuine lithograph, but if the artist first composed the work as a painting, watercolor or drawing then the lithograph is considered a work “after” the artist, not an original. (And would be worth less.) 8. All impressions of the same print are NOT equal Some impressions are strong and lifelike, while other impressions of the same print are are weak. This is especially true of etchings and drypoints, because the etched copper plate can’t support many printings before becoming worn down.
This is a commonly recognized issue for Old Master prints (which have undergone successive editions through the centuries) but it can also hold true for Modern prints. 9. Before buying, shop around for a better price The internet is your friend. Don’t pay gallery retail if you can avoid it—first, check online and google the artist’s name, the title of the piece, and the year of publication. Prints by definition are issued in multiples and you might be pleasantly surprised at how much prices can vary.
Just make sure you’re talking about the exact same piece—many prints have generic titles such as Tete de femme (Head of a Woman) and often the artist did several variations on the same theme. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is check the measurements and catalogue reference to make sure. 10. Don’t buy a print solely for investment Buy art because you like it. And when it appreciates in value (which it probably will) consider it a fringe benefit.
That being said, I’m very optimistic about the art market in general and the original print market in particular. Even in these difficult times, art values tend to rise year-by-year as sought-after pieces become ever more scarce. For more information on buying original art prints, visit AffordableArt101.com. Or read the next article in the series, below. *Note: this post may contain affiliate links* Recently I had the privilege of being asked to do a live painting demo for a local Creative Artists Association meeting.
It was a compliment to be asked, and I immediately responded with an enthusiastic, “yes.” I have painted in front of people before, many times at community mural events (and often while working with students) and I didn't anticipate any issues. I've also been. . . read more More related articles If you're looking for something else. . . Subscribe to our totally free weekly newsletter for artists.
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Title: Are Art Prints Worth Anything