Friday, 29 September 2017

Ends of lines - endangered prints about to sell out

"Boat at the Wharf" by Stanley Palmer
(4 prints left today)
I'm writing about our "endangered prints" collection this month because we have had an unusually high number of prints going into this ends of line category in the past few weeks (a few dozen as opposed to a handful every month or so).  This is probably due to the life cycle of the large number of prints published about 10 years back, when there was a structural shift in the market from artists printing reproductions to be on-sold by distributors to a few commercial publishers printing many titles from a single artist on a royalty basis.  There was a natural limit to this market (the size of NZ means there may only be a few hundred people who want a particular scene on the wall, and once they have it they aren't going to buy it again) so the slightly less popular titles from these ranges are not being re-printed and are now selling out.

Probably the print we will be saddest to see go is the beautiful large reproduction of Ralph Hotere's painting "Dawn/Water Painting".  This was originally published by the Christchurch Art Gallery to co-inside with a survey exhibition of Hotere's paintings while he was still alive (as an aside at times like this often a print is not made for strictly commercial reasons, the artist royalty of several thousand dollars will be paid up-front as a sweetener to get the artist's support to show works from their collection).  We have sold this print for many years and it is exactly what we believe in, a good quality reasonably priced art print by a top shelf NZ artist.  It probably will never be re-printed, so our advice to Hotere fans is please buy it today!

Why is this a thing?  It really has a lot to do with the size of the market for prints
Margaret Stoddart "Violets" (Last 2)
of NZ scenes or prints by NZ artists. Often an initial printing of a few hundred prints will be enough to satisfy demand.  The print may be open edition but the economic incentive to re-print is similar to the book industry, there will only be a second run if demand is there.  So, like books, prints simply go "out of print", and are only available on the second hand market.  This does not mean that their value will increase markedly if they are a reproduction of an original artwork but it does somewhat preserve their value around the purchase price as in good condition a print still has exactly the same appeal to a buyer even if it is not brand new (unlike say clothing).

This reality has changed a bit over the past decade as digital short run printing has become more prevalent, digital printing is ideally suited to a small market albeit at the disadvantage that unit costs do not decline dramatically as they do for offset lithography meaning prices are higher (we have seen the average cost of a large art print rise from around $NZ 50 to between $NZ 70-80 over the same period with the amount paid to the artist staying relatively static as the per unit printing cost is the main component in the cost increase (along with a small increase in GST).

So we have three main drivers for prints ending up in our "endangered prints" collection.

1. Print runs selling out.  A publisher, artist or gallery prints a few hundred prints and when they are sold out either customer demand is not there to re-print, or it was a one-off event such as a touring show/retrospective exhibition.

2. Prints were limited edition.  This is a different category altogether, particularly for original prints (where the prints are multiple artworks, they are not copies of another art form such as a painting) but also for reproductions printed in a smaller number, usually signed and numbered by the artist. These have a scarcity value as well as a decorative value and are not intended to be available over a longer period than a few years at most.  Established printmakers like Tony Ogle or Dick Frizzell tend to keep a balance between editions selling out and new work, with broadly the same number coming out each year as sell out - which shows that the supply and demand for their work is in balance.  It always rings alarm bells for us at the investment end of the art print market when initially successful artists with sold out editions begin increasing editions sizes, then the number of new editions each year, this is a slippery slope to beyond the pale re-printing under the guise of "roman numeral" editions etc!

3. Prints produced by commercial publishers using digital printing which theoretically could stay in print forever but are deleted by the publisher.  This is for two reasons. Firstly sales may not justify the space in sales reps catalogues or in administrative overhead (eg calculating artist royalties), one well known NZ publisher and distributor has a rule that if less than four prints a year are being sold they will delete the product line.  Secondly the artist's contract may not be renewed.  Contracts to make prints range from 1 to 3 years, unlike with offset printing where artist's work would be available potentially for years after the contract had lapsed due to a clause that allowed the publisher time to sell all printed stock with digital printing the lower stock inventories on hand means a publisher may only keep a month or two's supply on hand.

Shane Cotton Print - last one!
As soon as we know a print is running out (no firm and fast rule but less than 20 in stock is usually a trigger) we'll start keeping an eye on stock on hand.  When we are down to a number that is about what we would sell in a couple of months we pop the prints into our endangered gallery.  We also update our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and once a year we do a mail out to every one on our mailing list with every NZ print that is running low, so our special bunch of subscribers never miss out on a print they like but hadn't quite got around to ordering.

One final thought, selling prints online makes it so much easier to keep our catalogue up to date which is a blessing! Unlike our printed mail order catalogue which gradually becomes inaccurate regarding availability (and sometimes price) over the course of its useful life we can remove prints as easily as checking a box at the back of prints.co.nz.