Limited Edition Prints, Everything You Need to Know

Three limited edition wildlife prints

I’ve been selling my limited edition prints for over 20 years and I know there’s confusion in the minds of some people about the term. So instead of taking things for granted, I decided to answer some of the common questions.

A limited-edition print is a work of art produced in a deliberately small number to increase its value. The artificial scarcity adds a premium to the price and the print retains its value or increases over time. Each print is numbered up to a pre-determined arbitrary figure, identical, and signed in pencil.

That’s the definition but there’s far more to the subject,

Are Limited Edition Prints Valuable?

The value of the limited print is determined by a combination of demand and the size of the edition. A highly collectible artist can ask for higher prices and their limited editions may well increase in value as demand increases.

If an artist becomes very popular their prints can sell on the secondary market for substantially more than the original asking price.

I had a customer who remarked that he owned a print, similar in style to some of my own work. As I draw wildlife I knew it was probably drawn by Gary Hodges, a very popular wildlife artist at the time.

He wasn’t sure but as soon as he described it I knew it was one of his most sought-after prints, a turtle on a beach with ‘tank’ tracks in the sand. He’d bought it in the 90s for very little money.

I told him to check it out because now it was worth about £3000. He returned a few weeks later and thanked me.

Sadly that’s not the story for most of us.

On the whole, limited edition prints are a marketing ploy. They command a higher price because of scarcity value only, in the same way that any product can be promoted as limited in various ways to create an urgency about them.

Further Reading: Sell More Art – 9 Selling Skills For Artists (Are You Missing Sales?)

There is no intrinsic value in the print if the artist is unknown. The print is worth what the customer is willing to pay and if their purchase is the result of admiration for the artwork and artist, all well and good.

The purchase shouldn’t be seen as an investment. Indeed my lucky customer who bought the turtle print did so because he liked the picture. I don’t know if he sold it.

One last thing worth noting is the premium attached to the very first print in the edition. I always ask for more money for the very first print. In my case, I ask for £50 for print number 1/350.

Print number one of a limited edition.
Print number one in a limited edition

People are keen to get the first print. In days gone by there was a logic to that. The first print was the finest reproduction and as each subsequent print came off the press, the plate wore out, and the quality diminished.

This is no longer true. Now it’s more symbolic. People just like to have the first. Good to know though.

You can also take advantage of the last few in an edition. If a popular print is selling well you can increase the asking price as the edition nears the end.

What Is a Good Number for a Limited Edition Print?

Most artists will choose a number somewhere between 200 – 500 prints. Personally, my editions are 350. This range allows for a decent return and enough scarcity value to ask for a higher price.

I ask £20 for my limited editions from a market stall. Most of my prints are cheaper open editions and my limited editions are displayed in a separate folder. They are in effect an ‘upsell’.

I could and would sell my prints for more in a different setting. In the art world, context is everything.

The dilemma most artists face, when considering the print run, is calculating the likely sales. A popular print sold as a limited edition will limit your profits.

Further Reading: How to Make Prints of Your Art if You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

I curse that my best limited editions, with a potential return of £7000 in total (mostly profit), can sell out quite quickly. As an open edition, over time, I would’ve earned far more.

But you are not to know, are you?

I still have some limited editions that will never sell out. They are, in effect, simply padding out my portfolio.

If you can produce original work, good enough to print, at a fast enough pace, you can afford to make small print runs and ask for a higher price. It’s all about time commitment.

When I was a landscape painter, I was prolific, although I didn’t realize it at the time, and I could easily make another ‘seller’ in no time. Making a few bestselling limited editions would’ve been low risk.

Nowadays one drawing can take me a week or more and successful print sales are essential. Now my decision to limit a drawing, or not, is more important. On the whole, I tend to choose open editions these days, if truth be told.

What Guarantee Do I Have That My Limited Edition Print Is the Real Deal?

The truth is, you don’t. You are relying on the integrity of all those concerned.

If a limited edition print sells like hot cakes, there are some publishers, and artists, who cannot resist the temptation to ‘extend’ the edition. It can be big money.

They do this by various disingenuous ways. You will find the same image appear as,

  • Embossed ‘Gold’ editions on ‘luxury’ paper
  • On merchandise,
  • As artists proofs,
  • As a different size,
  • Or with an artists doodle by the signature.

And what can you do about it? Not much. The laws are weak, if indeed they exist at all.

In America, limited edition prints are regulated under state consumer protections laws. California led the way in 1971 and that was followed by the Georgia Print Law in 1986 and widely copied by other States.

In the UK the law doesn’t recognise the term as legally binding.

Some vendors will provide a certificate of authenticity and care deeply about their integrity and reputation. Others less so.

There was a time when the original printing plates could be destroyed but in the digital age that’s meaningless.

In the end, it comes down to trust. Do you like the people you are buying from or not? A certificate might be supported by a guild, or trade body, if you are lucky, but that’s about it.

Further Reading: How Do Artists Title Their Work? (And Improve Sales)

What Is an Artists Proof?

An artists proof is a print sent to the artist for their approval before starting a print run. The artist gets sent a range of prints and they choose the print that most closely matches their original.

The printer has a copy too and agrees to supply the prints to match. That’s the idea, although in my experience it all goes wrong with alarming regularity.

That leaves all these artists proofs hanging around so what to do with them all?

You might think it’s obvious, you should bin them. A limited edition is supposed to be limited. Well the artists proofs are generally accepted as a legitimate addition. But how many prints should there be?

In my opinion, and that’s all it is, I would argue that an artist will narrow down their choice of proofs to within a very few prints. How many do you need? Five max?

So when you see 50 artist proofs for sale, you know you’re being taken for a ride.

Only one print is the real proof. That’s the master copy. All the rest are, supposedly, inferior. But of course they are not. To the naked eye they are indistinguishable.

What Does the Number Mean at the Bottom of a Limited Edition Print?

I have to explain what the number is for more often than you might think. I don’t sell in a gallery, I sell on a street market, and people are genuinely perplexed. They say things like,

‘I’ve always wondered what the fraction means’

It’s incredible to me, but let’s recap anyway.

The number on the right, after the dash, is the size of the edition. In my case 350 prints. The number on the left is the number of an individual print. So 1/350, is the first print of 350 in total, and so it goes on until you reach the last, 350/350.

But you might have a really small edition. Let’s say you have an edition of 10 only. When it says 5/10, it’s not a fraction and nor is it the score! Could do better, only 5 out of 10!

No, it’s the 5th print out 10 in the world. That’s the idea.

The two letters you sometimes see, preceding the numbers, ‘AP’, stand for ‘Artists Proof’.

A limited edition print signed and numbered

What Are Original Prints and How Are They Different?

Original prints are made exclusively by the artist themslves, using their own skills to produce copies one by one, and in short runs. Variations between each print is the norm.

Examples of original prints would be,

The artist makes the master work by carving, etching, or drawing onto a surface which is then used to hand print an image. A great deal of knowledge and skill is required.

A short limited edition is produced. The number of prints is determined by the laborious process and the gradually diminishing quality of each print.

Most commercial limited edition prints, by comparison, are made using offset-lithography. These are not described as original prints. The artist makes an original piece of 2D art in any medium and the artwork is photographed or scanned. The picture is now a hi-res file.

The image is chemically etched onto a plate and multiple prints are reproduced. Each print is virtually identical to the eye. This method is suitable for higher print runs and cost effective.

Giclee prints are digital reproductions using archival pigment inks. Like offset-litho’, they require a photograph or scan and a hi-res file to reproduce very accurate images. The image is printed directly. Unlike offset litho’, they are ideal for short runs. Each print is costly, making large editions uneconomic.

Giclee prints are commercial and cannot be described as original prints.

Are Limited Edition Prints Always Signed by the Artist?

Yes, it would be strange not to sign each print.

The layout is always the same. The artist writes the number of each print at the bottom left and the signature on the bottom right. This is always done in pencil. Why? probably because ink could be mistaken for being part of the print and not genuine.

The signature is an affirmation that the print is approved by the artist. It’s like a quality control. It also adds a personal touch, the artists hand, so to speak.

The signature is very important. It took me time to develop the right look, and I can see the pleasure in people eyes when I sign a print in front of them. In fact, it’s so important for some people to see me sign it front of them, that I’m often asked to sign a print again on prints I’ve already signed before!

A limited edition print numbered and signed

Conclusion

There is always more to a seemingly simple subject than you think.

Limited edition prints are a must for most working artists. Prints are the only way to scale your business and at some point you will have to dip your toe in the water.

Making them carries a risk, it’s not cheap to print.

Some images are good but for some reason never grab the publics attention. Others, meanwhile, can be mediocre and become a bestseller. All you can do is use your best judgement and get more decisions right than wrong.

Get it right and the rewards are lucrative.


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