What Are Limited Edition Prints and Do Artists Really Need Them?

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 fine art reproduction of an original piece of art that has been signed and numbered by the artist. Limited editions are created in small quantities and sold by the artist in order to scale up their business and make a greater return from producing one work of art.

If you’re a little confused and need more help, we are going to clarify everything right here.

What are the Pros and Cons of Selling Limited Edition Prints?

The Advantages of Selling Limited Edition Prints

  • You make more money per print than you would by selling regular open editions
  • Limited edition prints are highly collectible and can increase in value as they become rarer
  • Limited editions create an opportunity for people to get their hands on your work who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford an original.
  • They can help you make a name for yourself as an artist and establish your brand.

The Disadvantages of Selling Limited Edition Prints

  • Limited edition prints require more time and money to produce than regular prints.
  • They may make your work seem too expensive for the average person.
  • Limited editions might not be so accessible to your fans
  • You can’t reissue them after they sell out.
  • It can be hard to keep track of how many prints you’ve sold, You must keep accurate records.

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.

How to Price a Limited Edition Print

First things first, limited edition prints are sold at a premium but what the premium should be is determined by the market you are targeting, the size of your edition, and the cost of production.

So many variables have to be taken into account, there are no standard formulas to guide you. You must charge what the market will bear, and that is trial and error.

Start low and slowly raise the prices until it starts to hurt your sales.

It’s better psychology to start at the bottom end and work up than to do the reverse. Not only is it deflating to lower your prices, especially if you think the price is fair, but it will also annoy repeat customers who may feel cheated with your new discounted deal.

It’s far better to raise your prices and if a regular customer complains (which rarely happens) you can offer a discount as a gesture of goodwill.

I sell my limited edition prints for £20 each. That may not seem much but they are sold next to open editions of the same size and style that are selling for only £6.50 each. There’s my premium, a £13.50 price difference.

By and large, I do not have an affluent customer base. I rely on impulse purchases by tourists in a market, and my prices reflect that reality.

If I sold the same prints in a gallery they would command far higher retail prices but, in all probability, my profits would be no more, and my turnover would be dreadful.

Add up your true costs of setting up and publishing your prints and you can calculate your bottom line. Anything over that baseline is your profit margin.

Work out how much money you NEED to live on and aim higher.

Calculate how much money you need per day it’s less daunting than a yearly figure and far more achievable.

Also, take into account that your limited editions will be only one of a number of products. I sell open editions and magnets from my stand, and most artists take commissions and sell their originals too.

The very first print of an edition is always worth more to a collector and to some extent this is also true of the last number. I always ask £50 for the first print of an edition.

You can also consider adding some color or unique finishing touches to some prints to increase their value.

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.

Can You Ever Reprint a Limited Edition?

It’s not as simple as it should be.

How can you really be sure that the publisher will honor the deal and not reissue the print in another form? You can’t really. Most publishers have integrity, some don’t. No one wants to see their expensive print reappear as a greeting card, but it does happen.

You might find the same image appear as:

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

Imagine paying top dollar for a print only to see it republished elsewhere. Could you challenge it? Probably not. Is it ethical? Not really.

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.

Another way some artists extend the edition is to hand tint the prints. In my mind, this is much more acceptable. The buyer is really getting something extra and no one can say the prints aren’t significantly different.

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.

So can you ever reprint a limited edition ethically? I think you can under certain circumstances. For the most part, I think it’s a con, but I personally would be comfortable painting a drawing and marketing it as different.

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

Can You Guarantee That Your Limited Edition is Genuine?

The truth is, you can’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.

Limited edition prints are likely to be genuine when they’re signed and numbered, especially so if the date and place of purchase is written on the back. Certificates of authenticity provided by the artist or gallery are also a good sign that the print is genuine.

That’s all you can do. This will never guarantee that the print will never be re-issued in another guise and it will not protect you against fraud.

I had one of my limited editions stolen and the image appeared on apparel on a print-on-demand site. I proved provenance and had the seller removed but there is no way I could’ve taken the seller to court for compensation.

In some ways, it’s the wild west out there. Images are easy to steal and there are plenty of traders who don’t care where images originate as long as they don’t have to pay for them.

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 chosen proof acts as the contractual benchmark and every print delivered should match the master copy. The artist must choose and sign off the best proof.

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. Publishers take liberties and offer them for sale as the artist’s proofs, and they’re usually sold as a limited edition too.

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. Strange how these proofs are so neatly packaged. An extra edition of 50 artist proofs, not 47, not 13, a nice round number. Anyone would think that it was contrived and deliberate.

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

Personally, I don’t offer any proofs for sale, I think it’s disingenuous to sell proofs as anything other than what they really are, and that’s an extension of the existing print run.

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

How Do Artists Sign and Number Their Limited Edition Prints?

Artists sign and number their limited edition prints in pencil at the bottom of each print and, I can tell you from first-hand experience, there’s an element of skill involved. It’s not easy to sign and number hundreds of prints without making mistakes.

I practiced my ‘arty’ signature well before I started to sell my prints. It had to be aesthetically pleasing and automatic. It takes time for them to develop the muscle memory.

I experimented until eventually, I found a way of signing my name that both ‘looked’ the part and matched my style of work. It’s like an instantly recognized brand and provides authenticity and credibility to the piece. It’s important to spend some time getting it right.

The artist’s signature is on the bottom right-hand side of the image and the number is written on the bottom left-hand side.

The numbers must look neat and tidy. If you have dodgy handwriting get used to writing the numbers in a clear and consistent form. You will make a few mistakes anyway and for that reason, I always order more prints than I need as spares. Just in case.

For the best results, I like to use a slightly blunt ‘B’ pencil.

Selling Limited Edition Prints vs Open Edition Prints. What’s Best?

Limited edition prints imply exclusivity. Collectors love them. They feel as if they are closer to the artist. They are not originals but they are the next best thing.

The downside, or one of them anyway, is that they are sold at a higher price point than open edition prints which can make people think twice about buying them.

So if you want to sell more art and make as much money as possible then you might decide to focus on open edition prints (unlimited).

Consider it this way. If you have a bestselling limited edition you have a fixed profit. If I sell all 350 prints in my limited edition, I can only turn over £7000, max.

Great, but the same image sold for a third of the price as an open edition might sell 10 times more prints. In that case, selling it as a limited edition backfires.

What’s the answer? As always it’s to spread your bet. Do as I do and offer some limited prints as ‘special’ and sell the rest as open editions.

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.


There are plenty more posts like this, have a look at these:


Keep in Touch

* indicates required

PIN IT AND SAVE IT

Limited edition prints all you need to know for pinterest