10/10: Basics of Print Collecting
This top 10 is intended to help those new collectors or first-time print purchasers navigate the technical jargon that gallery aficionados use to describe their products. It can also be used by experienced collectors to refresh their basic knowledge of print collecting. This page will be a one-stop-shop for identifying and understanding those confusing terms that might get in the way of you and your desired print. Enjoy.
1. Print/ Reproduction/ Impression/ Multiple
What exactly am I buying? Generally, Printed Editions directs visitors to fine art gallery websites that provide fine art prints. These are limited edition works of art that are produced in various editions which have likely involved the hand of the original artist somewhere in the creation process. This differs from a reproduction which is generated on a mass scale through digital imaging (posters) or mechanical production. The printmaking process creates 2D impressions through traditional manual techniques that have evolved over years to assure consistent quality throughout the edition. A multiple is simply an identical impression of an original art object that an artist has created or commissioned, these also come in series or editions and usually refer to 3D art objects.
Are these original works of art? Yes and no. Most prints will be part of an edition that is arranged through the artist and publisher, these editions can have as few as 2 prints and some may have more than 100. Open editions mean that there can be an infinite number of impressions made whereas limited editions have a limited cap and then the printing plate is destroyed. In general the less impressions that are made the more valuable and rare the print becomes. In the past it was seen as an advantage to have a number lower down on the print run but with the consistency control of today’s printmakers it matters very little if you attain a print numbered 5/100 or 78/100. Be aware that these numbers can also be expressed in roman numerals such as IV/C (4/100).
3. Print Run
Simply put, a print run encompasses the entirety of an edition including all the different types of prints, some of which may not be available to the public (more in Markings).
4. Signed and Numbered
Is this the artist’s hand written signature? It depends on what the gallery specifies, remember, it never hurts to ask these questions. Be wary, sometimes the print includes a signature that is described as “plate signed”, this means that the artist has engraved their signature on the printing plate (matrix) and has not hand-signed the artwork. If the object is a 3D multiple and does not contain a signature on the artwork itself then it should be accompanied with a certificate that is signed, numbered and dated. Some prints may not be signed by the artist because the edition came out after the artist’s death, be sure that these prints are authenticated through the artist’s estate.
There are a number of strange markings that might confuse a first-time buyer. Here is a complete reference:
A.P/ P.A | Artist’s Proof – These are impressions taken while the artist is still working on the matrix.
BAT | Bon a Tirer – Prints that are considered “master images” in which further prints are compared to for quality.
E.A/ E.d’A | Épreuve d’Artiste – Equivalent to “artist proofs”.
H.C/ H/C | Hors de Commerce – These are prints that were originally unsuitable for sale.
LE’s | Limited Edition’s – These are basic prints that are part of a limited set of impressions.
M.E | Museum Edition – These are prints that are intended to be sold through museums.
P.P | Printer’s Proofs – Test impressions made by the printer to check colour, line and text.
TP’s | Trial Proof – Equivalent to “printer’s proof” or “artist’s proof”
Unique | Monoprints and hand-altered prints usually bear this marking.
How are prints created? There is a wide array of different printing techniques that will be explored further in the Technical Corner (link) over the coming months. These include: Woodcuts, Engravings, Etchings, Mezzotints, Aquatints, Drypoints, Lithography, Screenprinting, Monotypes, Monoprints, Digital Prints and Foil Imaging (future links).
What makes a good quality print? Most galleries will state the condition of the print, newer print editions will be in better condition but will naturally be short on provenance and rarity.
Condition is very important when considering value, older prints that were created before modern quality control usually decrease in quality as the printing matrix is worn down throughout the print run. Quality is based on vibrancy of colours, consistency of ink layers, lines, materials used, frame, and canvas/paper. For rare and expensive prints it might be advisable to ask for a physical condition report or purchase your own report from a third-party.
How do I know I’m getting what I pay for? Most galleries practice due-diligence, but the customer must also take precautions to protect their investment. A certificate from the gallery or the artist can go a long way if anything goes awry. Most galleries have contracts with artists and create new editions that are published directly through the gallery, these are the safest purchases as they will include modern documents. Older prints might be lacking signatures, stamps and other marking but might still be associated with certain artists, these prints will ideally be accompanied by some sort of provenance or literature.
Why is the frame important? Because of the printing methods utilized, the prints will not have the same longevity as a truly original work of art. This means that the buyer needs to take more precautions to protect the work by buying a quality frame that will protect against UV damage as well as dust, moisture and temperature changes.
What is POA? Don’t be scared when you see this price reference, POA refers to Price on Application and galleries use this method for a number of reasons. Just like other assets, art is always fluctuating depending on supply and demand and what might not have been popular one year might be the hot ticket of today. If anything this price structure supports the idea that prints can be rare and collectable appreciating or depreciating in the future depending on the market.
Written by: Nathan Paul Hansen
Nathan is a freelance writer specializing in art business. He has a BA in Art History from Concordia University and is recently working towards his MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.