In this digital age, limited edition prints are more than just reproductions of original artworks. They’re collaborations between an artist and a printmaker, and the resulting prints can be single, meaningful works of art in their own right.
Firstly a limited edition print buyer should always love the work and find the artist or designers work compelling. I wouldn't recommend buying a print for a collection simply to make money, if you love it & it's looks impressive then no matter what happens to it's value you will likely keep it for many years to come and appreciate it in a place of prominence within your home. Not all prints will necessarily go up in value while in some cases they can. Like most things, art has evolved with digital technology, and this means that some prints now are the original artwork. Print editions create scarcity and exclusivity, which can make a work more valuable over time and can at least allow the work to retain its value. So, when you discover a print you love and you’re thinking of adding to your collection, the first thing to consider is the edition. Is it limited edition or open edition? How large is the edition? Knowing this will help you assess the lasting value of your work and provide insights into the artist’s market. There’s a few fundamental things to consider when you’re looking to collect. So, let’s go back to basics for a minute—what is a limited edition print?
What Are Limited Edition Prints?
A limited edition print is a limited number of exclusive prints signed and numbered by an artist, photographer or designer. Open editions can essentially be an endless collection of prints without a specific limit (can be unsigned).
An edition was originally the total number of prints struck from one plate. Since the late 19th century, the number of prints produced has sometimes been restricted and labeled ‘editions’. Before that, prints were produced until the plate or other processes wore out. Print edition are marked by the artist in a few ways:
Numbering of Prints
Limited edition prints are marked with two numbers, one to note the edition number and one to note the print number. For example, a marking of 1/30 means that your print is the first of only 30 ever produced. A reputable artist will never produce new editions, which is why they can become collectible. They will also limit the number of artist’s proofs to no more than 10% of the total edition. In contrast, open editions have no limits, so they’re generally less valuable. A common misconception is that edition numbers follow the order in which they’re printed. This is rarely the case—artists will often number their prints at random as they sign them. This means that the number of your print will not typically affect its resale value.
Having said that, galleries who are selling limited edition prints for the first time will often sell them in number order. If there’s really high demand, the gallery will sometimes raise the price as prints start to sell out. So, you might need to pay more to secure the print numbered 30/30, but this does not make it more valuable than the print numbered 1/30 (it means that the person who purchased print 1/30 made a particularly great purchase). If the aim for a work of art is to steadily increase in value, the edition number should be kept low, typically between 10 and 50. Higher numbers of editions can be created for iconic works from highly collectible artists and in some cases emerging artists can make their work more affordable and accessible by having a higher number of editions say 200-500. Interestingly, printers and artists will often destroy the things that were used to produce edition prints – like printing plates and photographic negatives – so it’s impossible to add to the edition.
There are also a number of different proofs and abbreviations to be aware of when you’re looking to collect. A print can be marked ‘AP’ or ‘A/P’, which stands for artist’s proof. These are identical to the standard edition and often used by artists to show their work to galleries or in exhibition. Fractions may be used here again to denote the edition number, for example AP 1/2.
Other proofs are often made throughout the earlier stages of printing, as the artist and printer refine and perfect the print. These are called state proofs, trial proofs or colour proofs and can be unique in their colours, paper type or size. Andy Warhol started selling his trial proofs as unique colour combinations, and now they’re some of his most coveted works. Once the image has been perfected, a proof is signed BAT which is short for bon à tirer, French for ‘ready to print’. The BAT proof is traditionally kept by the printer, and the rest of the standard edition is matched to this final proof. Understanding these denotations will help you assess the value of the print.
How to Value The Prints
When you’re trying to work out the value there are five main things to consider:
- The edition
- The work’s condition, if you’re not buying a new work direct from the artist
- The signature
- The printing method
- The artists themselves and body of work
Let’s look a little closer at those.
The Edition Size
As above, when edition sizes are small, artworks become rare which increases their value and collectibility. So, an artwork being sold at Sotheby’s with an edition size of 30, will be more valuable than a comparable work with an edition size of 100. Interestingly, the artist’s technique can strongly affect the size of the edition, too. For example, etchings made with drypoint or aquatint will usually be made in small editions because of the fragility of the printmaking process. More durable methods like lithography allow for larger editions.
The Print ConditionPrints on paper are prone to damage, whether from water, creasing, trimming or fading. Historic prints in perfect condition are very rare. This means that it’s really important to ask the gallery or auction house for a condition report. Naturally, if the print is in poor condition it will be less valuable. To retain the value of your print, it’s important to care for it appropriately. You can read about how to preserve your wall art here.
The Artist’s Signature
Prints are often more valuable when they’re signed by the artist, though not all valuable works are signed. Be aware that larger edition prints might have stamped or printed signatures, and these will be less valuable than a hand-signed signature. Sometimes you'll need a magnifying glass to distinguish between stamped and hand-signed signatures. When you're researching the signature, details matter. Are other prints in the edition signed? Where are they signed? Some artists sign on the lower right margin, some on the back. Art forgers will sometimes add signatures to unsigned prints to increase the value, so you should always consult the catalogue raisonné (a compendium of every print produced by an artist).
If you’re looking at a historic print, be aware that signatures only became standard practice in the 20th century. In these cases, ask for signs of authenticity before you buy. Christie’s and Shapiro are two auction specialists who give clear, accurate signature descriptions, have a read-through of some listings and learn what to look out for.
The Printing Technique
There’s lots to consider about how an artwork is printed. The main consideration regarding value, though, is that prints requiring innovative or labour intensive processes will generally be more valuable. For example, very large prints are difficult to produce, especially those over 24 by 40 inches (about 61cm by 102cm). Printing works this large requires one-of-a-kind printing presses, elaborate techniques and usually the skills of a master printmaker. Works with multiple colours will take longer to produce, too. All of this means that the print may sell for a higher value. There are many varied printing methods to consider: giclée, lithography, screen printing, digital printing and LED UV printing are some of the common techniques used today. As a collector, you need to know that your print was made with longevity in mind. To assist, you can read my article about the types of printing methods and papers.
Archival, giclée printing can transform a high-resolution image into a museum grade work. Pigment inks are known for their longevity, and can match the colours of the digital image. When paired with archival quality paper, the result is a long-lasting print that can last generations. A lot can ride on who does the printing, too. Esteemed print shops command significant respect, as the art of printmaking is just that—an art in itself. Collaborating with a respected printmaker can increase the artwork’s value.
The Artist and Their Body of Work
Understanding the artist is fundamental to valuing their artwork. Consider where they are in their career and look at their body of work. If they’re fresh to the art scene their work might increase in value as they become better known. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if they’re a renowned artist you can expect demand to remain high for their work, which means your print can retain or increase in value.
How to Select the Right Print
Editions offer value without the cost of an original or one-off work. However, as we’ve just gone over, there’s a lot of variability in prints that can increase or decrease their value. So, as an art lover and collector, how do you know that you’ve selected the right print? The first thing to understand is the Artist themselves. Where are they in their career, are they just starting out, so that their work might increase significantly in value as they become well-known? Are they a renowned artist whose work will always draw a higher demand and retain value?
Andy Warhol’s ‘Flowers’ signalled a marked departure from his pop iconography, and is still unique today for his use of non-recognisable subject matter (as opposed to images like Campbell’s and Marilyn Monroe). In October 2019, the full set of 10 prints numbered 27/250 sold through Sotheby’s for 1.1 million USD.
Now, we can’t all collect an Andy Warhol, but that’s a great example of how limited edition prints can retain their value. The second thing you should look at is the style of art. In digital or new media art, the prints can be the originals, which helps them to retain or increase their value over time.
Next, consider all the aspects that make it more or less valuable, which we covered above—edition, printing method, condition, signature, artist. Finally, don’t forget to think about where you want to display it. You need to match the artwork’s size, orientation and colour to your space, wall and decor. Read more in-depth about this in my article how to select & buy wall art. As a collector or art lover, it’s important to consider all of this, but ultimately you also need to choose a piece of art that’s meaningful to you so that you’ll enjoy it for many years to come. That’s what will really bring your art to life in your home. With so much to consider, collecting prints can seem daunting. It doesn’t need to be—do your research and find out more about the artist and the printer, how your print was made, and how many editions there are. With that information you’ll be able to determine the real value of the print to you that you’re considering. I hope this guide has given you more confidence to consider buying a limited edition print for your home.