The two kinds of limited edition prints

In this article we’ll discuss where the real value long term actually lies in buying new prints that are sold as “limited edition”.

It's exciting that the monetary value of vintage posters, antique prints and editions by twentieth century NZ printmakers is being increasingly recognised by the wider art market.  When rare NZ prints are being sold for tens of thousands of dollars those of us who bristle at hearing the phrase “it’s just a print” allow ourselves a tingle of satisfaction at collecting an artistic medium that had managed to remain wonderfully under-rated (ie cheap) for so long… 

Essentially the fact a print is advertised as being a "limited edition" is not necessarily an indication of its long term value because limited edition prints come in two sorts.

1. The first kind of limited edition print is a reproduction of another artwork.

2. The second kind of limited edition print is a multiple original where the print is the end result of an artistic process, there is no other “original” artwork.

Limited edition reproduction of a painting by Brian Dahlberg
A limited edition reproduction can be a copy of an antique print (for instance the series of early prints of NZ published by Avon Fine Prints in the 1960s and 1970s) or a copy of a painting (for example this image from a collection of prints by contemporary Auckland painter Brian Dahlberg).   A reproduction print can be printed offset (photolithography) or digitally (inkjet or giclee) but all are copies of another artwork.

[This writer is well aware that calling the first sort of limited editions “prints” at all is controversial (some in the industry say they should only every be called “reproductions” rather than "prints") - you can read about this debate in a previous article "Artists prints or reproduction prints, spotting the difference in the age of digital printing"].

Reproduction prints can be of astonishingly fine quality today, often printed on canvas and even in three dimensions including the frame - see the video demonstrating Canon's version of this latest technology that has not yet arrived in New Zealand...

 The price a print buyer pays is often higher for a  digital print which unless outrageously excessive  can usually be justified by the higher costs  involved compared to printing offset and the fact  the buyer is receiving a superior quality print in  return. Although the capital costs of owning  digital printers have fallen dramatically  especially given the recent strength of the NZ  dollar there will never be the same economies of  scale that you had with photolithography when  you are printing in very short runs.

 However in our view the high prices that were asked for reproduction prints printed using digital technology when the giclee revolution arrived in NZ a decade ago has led to confusion about the value of giclee reproduction prints today.

This period saw giclee reproduction prints of scenic NZ oil paintings being marketed at over a thousand dollars each, this pushed them up to the same pricepoint as editions from printmakers but in most cases without making the artists a lot of money because the cost structure to get them to market was so high.  But critically this higher cost structure created an lingering expectation that because a higher price was paid for the print it would have to have some kind of long term value, an expectation that a print buyer must be purchasing something with a value that would endure beyond the decorative appeal of the print.

This initial high pricing was the result of the following combination of factors.  The small size of the NZ market, the high cost of materials (inks and substrates), the fact there is no reduction in unit cost for multiple prints being printed at once (not economies of scale unlike photolithography), small numbers of prints being printed at once meant artists were effectively paying retail prices for their printing requirements and the fact that giclee prints were marked up galleries and other retailers by the same amount as offset reproduction prints rather than the smaller margin on what had been the previously more expensive prints, the original editions.

However the price you pay for a print is not always a good indication of its long term value.

We think that a limited edition reproduction print offers extra value for the print buyer if it is signed and numbered by the artist because there is value in knowing that your new artwork is not going to be seen everywhere (scarcity as well as decorative value).  There is also a value in the actual signature of the artist - after all people buy autographs by themselves. The most valuable reproduction print in New Zealand are the signed versions of the 1920s era print of C.F. Goldie's "A Good Joke", valuing his signature at around $1000.  For a contemporary NZ artist like Dick Frizzell his signature being added to an artwork is probably worth around $100, for example on the exhibition poster for the Blockbusters show we have for sale at the moment.

However for serious collectors a reproduction of another artwork is not going to hold its value as well as an original work of art - or in the case of prints, a multiple original.

"Scarcity and decorative value are weak factors in the secondary market when compared to an artwork with intrinsic skill and creativity that also has that magical resonance with art buyers that endures across more than one generation."

We try and make sure that in our marketing of a reproduction print that we stress the value to the buyer in the amazing quality, colour fidelity, large size and longevity of the inks offered in a modern print rather than a mysterious "collectable value".  Print buyers of previous decades would have happily paid more for a print that won't fade for decades and looks just like the original painting, but even at a higher price these are still reproduction prints, not original editions, even if both categories of prints can truthfully be called "limited editions".