Limited Edition Print Legality: Its All About The He Said She Said Bull&*%@

In many ways this topic could be filed under "rich photographer" problems, but all professional photographers are trying to earn a living wage--the aspirational ones are even trying to earn rock star wages. To earn anything, photographers need to sell something: either their time and expertise to produce work for other people, or products rendered from their own work (prints, usage rights, etc).  This is where photography and economics collide--supply and demand 101.  And it is a murky and complicated subject with the involvement and differing goals of artist, gallery owner, collector, and the public, whose general relationship to art as an object with increasing value plays a large role.

Plate and paper print made from plate.

Plate and paper print made from plate.

What is an actual Limited Edition?
Limited editions in the world of printmaking or lithography are defined as the number of prints struck from the same plate at the same time before it was destroyed or rendered unusable. Either the artist decided there would be limited prints made or the plate itself could only withstand a set number of uses before wear and tear destroyed it. The artist then signed and numbered the printed works and the plates were destroyed/recycled.  Prints made early in the mechanical run were of higher quality since the plate was in the best condition, hence they were priced accordingly. This is also where the practice of "artist's proofs" came into use, as unnumbered test prints were critical in set-up and not counted as part of the numbered series. Moving printmaking to limited editions had the economic benefit of more closely replicating the business model of fine art sales where original works could demand high prices. Now a gallery owner or artist could market the lower numbered prints as having value closer to an original.  They could create scarcity.

Limited Edition in Photography
There really is no such thing--a truth no one seems to state when discussing this topic. The medium is not limited in the same way as other visual arts (for better or worse) and any limits in reproduction of work are purely artificial.  Limited editions in photography are based solely on artists and galleries creating a product mix which will help move prints out and money in.

Photography is unique in the printing arts as it lacks some of the classic limitations of reproduction. While discarding an unusable printing plate is required, destroying negatives or permanently deleting digital files is idiotic.  It serves no artistic purpose, and it certainly does not serve a financial purpose in the short or long run. There are famous examples of photographs picking up sales steam long after their release. 

Untitled-1.jpg

Though pervasive, limited edition printing is certainly not mandatory for any level of success, and the actual term is the subject of a lot of contentious debate in modern photography. The use of limited edition printing as standard procedure in photography is also a recent phenomenon.  It was not only ignored by many iconic photographers but actually rejected by some as elitist. For those WWAAD bracelet wearing zealots out there (What Would Ansel Adams Do), it should be noted that he never destroyed his negatives and did not sign or limit his prints.  In fact, the negatives are in use to this day.  Over time, he also changed the development techniques used on particular negatives to recognize new technologies and his own creative shifts.  It is estimated he may have printed up to 800 or more of some his most popular works--hardly limited edition. Gallery sites and reviews always babble on about how the older prints of Adam's larger editions are better and of higher value than the later prints.  But there is no artistic argument there, only the argument of an older print being more valuable than a more recent print. The real focus of Adams and his contemporary Edward Weston was on the pure and limitless aspects of the medium.  Like Adams, Weston never signed prints, yet his images are some of the most valuable ever sold. 

So while, mechanically speaking, there is no such thing as a limited edition, there is powerful economic pressure to create such a product. It is an illusion created for marketing purposes, and nothing makes an illusion more real than money.  The relationship between a gallery, their collectors, and the photographer have created a sliding scale of limited edition rules to meet economic demands.  These are a few basic generalizations on current use of the term:

Limited Edition Prints...

  • Are signed by the photographer.
  • Are numbered by the photographer.
  • Are typically dated or stamp-dated by the photographer.
  • Are assumed to have been printed by the photographer or at the very least approved personally by the photographer.
  • Are accompanied by detailed provenance (written document detailing the type of paper, where image was made, equipment used, and additional details on the work itself--more information here equates to more value later.
  • Are all printed at the same time and will not be printed in the same manner again (size, paper, type of printing) once the edition is completely printed.
  • Will usually be in a series of 5 to no more than 30 prints in a given size.
  • Will be priced so larger prints are in smaller series and cost more per print.
  • Will be priced so print prices increase as each number in an edition is sold.  For example: 10 limited edition photographs are printed and the first one is purchased for $100, the second would be listed for $110, the third for $121...as scarcity increases, so does the price. Remember we are talking economics here, not art.
  • Will be tracked so the original collector is a matter of record.
  • Will not include Artist's Proofs in any print run as these are no longer required and generally seen as diluting the value of a limited edition print run.
Recent Signed & Numbered print (series of 10) by Nathan Larson. 

Recent Signed & Numbered print (series of 10) by Nathan Larson. 

Of course every gallery and every photographer will have their own interpretation of these rules.  More importantly for high priced photographs--the collector will have a definition of what limited edition means to them.  In this way the market shapes the general ground rules while not necessarily solving all the problems of clarity. For example, if I print a limited edition series as inkjet prints, can I later run a limited edition of the same image in the same size as a c-print? A monochrome print?  An inkjet version? Or will those new prints be seen as a breach of my trust with galleries and collectors who bought my first limited edition?  With technology allowing print on demand, if I only print when I sell an image but limit my run to 10 total prints, is it still limited edition?  What if I print on different paper? What if I hand color? What if...

It depends on your point of view--not only about whether the entire limited edition process agrees with your own artistic sensibilities, but also your economic purpose. These are indeed problems which arrive with rising popularity, so there are worse things to deal with in your business.  But they are very real market issues in the modern photography market. Galleries and collectors become the gatekeepers in defining the final rules of limited editions and photographers who do not honor agreements are really only hurting their own long term sales with those clients. Of course, some photographers may not need those relationships to be successful in the first place.

William Eggleston's "Untitled," 1970  Courtesy Searching Google

William Eggleston's "Untitled," 1970  Courtesy Searching Google

And It Came Pass...There Were Lawyers
I have been pondering how every four year college degree should include one full year of law school. I feel like every discussion ends with a lawyer, and this is going to be no exception. Maybe I am just distracted by the pesky lawsuit I am fighting for smuggling illegally made Pope figurines across the border. The actual final definition on what is considered a limited edition is becoming a legal question in more and more states as lawsuits by collectors increase. A lawsuit was recently filed against William Eggleston's estate by a collector who claimed a reissue of prints had devalued their original collection.  The originals are dye-transfer prints.  The new edition of 36 prints, which sold at Christie's for $5.9 million dollars, were inkjet pigment prints of the same images. You can read some interesting views on the lawsuit here. Rich photographer problems...

Starting with California in the 1970s, limited edition art is an issue which many states have now addressed head on through legislation,  In Georgia, The Georgia Print Law requires art dealers, artists, or auctioneers to supply information to perspective purchasers about the nature of the print, the number of prints and editions produced, and the involvement (if any) of the artist in the creation of the print. The penalty for violation of the law ranges from simple reimbursement to damages, in the case of a willful violation. Those found to be in violation of the law are also liable for court costs, expenses, and attorney fees. The law applies to works of art valued at more than $100.00 (not including frame). The law also defines many of the terms discussed in this article for legal purposes. Read the full Georgia legal code here.

Know Your Customers & Let Them Know You
As I discussed in an article on giclee printing, it comes down to providing what you say you are going to provide to your customer (either a gallery or collector).  I have been working on my own definitions, but my print business is very young and I am still deciding what works for my customers (all direct sales).  Currently I create editions of 10 and sell them as Signed & Numbered prints.  I include a letter of provenance with details on the image and how it was created.  However, I also allow third parties to sell my prints as unsigned and unnumbered.  What is the difference?  Signed and Numbered prints are projects with additional time and resources committed to a presentation which I want to set aside as a special statement.  This might include paper selection, additional editing time, or different equipment and it definitely includes a message from me about the print itself. Prints not signed by me have the added value of allowing the customer more freedom to adapt my work to their preferences by choosing paper type and size.  I like both avenues for sales right now.  I have also sold commissions of single prints which I sign and number.  I know this is an area where I will see changes in my own business plan, but for now, my focus is to be crystal clear with my customers about what they are getting when they buy my photographs. Further questions should be directed to the lawfirm of Avedon, Adams & Leibovitz.