Prints “by”, prints “after”: the difference between “original prints” and “reproductive prints”
Let’s say that Chagall decides to make a lithograph one day (not likely, since he is dead, but this is just an example). He prepares the stone and delivers it to the printer. The printer prints the edition. Chagall may sign the individual prints in pencil, or he may not: that’s another issue (for more about signatures, see HERE). But in any case, the prints in that edition are prints (or more specifically, in this case, lithographs) BY Chagall.
Now let’s try something else. Chagall has just produced a fine painting, and his assistant, Charles Sorlier, says to him, “That’s a fine painting. Can I make a lithograph after it?” Chagall agrees. In this case, SORLIER prepares the stone and has it printed. Here, Sorlier might sign the prints by hand, or Chagall might sign them. Perhaps even BOTH will sign them. But again, THAT IS ANOTHER ISSUE. The point is that these prints are prints (or lithographs) AFTER Chagall.
In other words, if artist X prepares the matrix himself, the resulting prints are “by X”. If artist Y prepares the matrix in imitation of a work by artist X, the resulting prints are “by Y after X”, or simply “after X”.
My advice is to be on the lookout for that “after”. The simple truth is that ANYONE can create a work of art “after” any artist! For example, I can open up an art book at make a drawing based on the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This drawing would be correctly described as being “by Cole after Michelangelo”, or even “after Michelangelo”. But this work is obviously not BY Michelangelo, and thus the presence of his name does not give any meaning (or value) to my drawing (note: I have absolutely no artistic talent).
In some cases, major artists have sought to add to their earnings by having craftsmen produce prints after their works. Sorlier made many lithographs after Chagall. Braque, Picasso, and Dalí also authorized such reproductions at times, and sometimes signed them. Such reproductions sometimes turn up at serious auction houses, and there are people who will occasionally pay good money for them. Still, serious collectors avoid them like the plague. Scholars have absolutely no interest in them. In my opinion, they are trash. Why should I buy a work after Picasso, even if Picasso himself has signed it? If I want reproductions of Picasso’s works I’ll buy a book about Picasso: it will be far cheaper and the reproductions will be far more accurate.
The serious collector wants prints BY the artist—whoever that artist is—rather than prints AFTER the artist.
Most catalogues raisonnés include only works BY the artist, not works AFTER. Sometimes they include both, but in these cases they almost always put the works AFTER in a separate section. It is important to consult the catalogue raisonné before bidding on eBay because many fraudulent and/or incompetent sellers do not distinguish between prints “by” an artist and prints “after” an artist.
About the author
Dr William Cole, a recognized expert in art connoisseurship, is director of the Sylvan Cole Gallery. His articles have appeared in Print Quarterly, Art in Print, Word & Image, and other leading journals. His most recent book is a catalogue raisonné of the illustrated books and print portfolios of Masafumi Yamamoto.