Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Inscriptions such as 5/60 that we encounter at the corner of an artwork or 3+1 written on the artwork’s label indicates that the artwork has editions. We know it can be confusing for both the viewer and buyer -even for the artist sometimes!
So in this post, let’s briefly look at some questions regarding art editions.
What is an “edition”?
Tate’s online glossary of art terms define it as: “A copy or replica of a work of art made from a master. It commonly refers to a series of identical impressions or prints made from the same printing surface but can also be applied to series of other media such as sculpture, photography and video.”
First thing to produce the editions of an artwork is to determine the number and size of editions. The terms, “Limited Edition” and “Open Edition” indicates the permission to produce a limited or limitless number of editions. And these decisions are given by the artist or the institution/gallery that holds the right to resell and/or represent the artwork.
In addition to editions, there is also an artist copy, called the “artist proof”. For instance if there are 3 editions of a photograph it is denoted as 2+1, +1 indicating the artist copy that is reserved for the artist and is not sellable.
Which mediums of artworks can have editions?
Often times we see editions of print, poster or photography works but it is also possible to produce editions of a video, sculpture or an artist book.
If an edition is defined as a copy or replica, doesn’t this mean the edition is not original?
Producing editions of a work does change the unique, one of its kind, original nature of an artwork, but note that it is carried under the permission and supervision of the artist herself. Besides, the work is delivered to the buyer with the signature of the artist and/or a certificate of authenticity. For example the version of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which is a urinal he bought from a flea market in 1917 and signed as R. Mutt, included in Tate’s permanent collection, is a replica. Although the fact that a replica is included in one of the world’s leading art museum’s collection may sound a bit weird, what rationalizes this is the signature of the artist engraved both on the work and its copper pedestal.
Why should I prefer an edition?
The uniqueness of an artwork is influential on its market price. For example an artwork made by a deceased artist can reach sale prices up to millions of Dollars in auctions because the work is one of its kind as its creator is long gone. In this case it is fair to say that editions of artworks are more affordable in terms of their price compared to unique artworks. Recent years, with the increase of white-collar population in big cities, there are more and more projects coming up that focuses on editions and are marketed with their affordability aspect. Today decorative objects produced in mass production comes in a wide price range and are quite easy to find, but buying editions can offer a very individual and unique experience for a person, also at affordable prices, that comes with the meaning, creativity, technique and ideas that the artwork radiates,
Besides, since editions has certificates of authenticity, they can be resold or loaned to museums/institutions for specific exhibits.
What should I be careful of when purchasing an edition?
Firstly of its certificate and/or signature. Also the dealer keeping track of details like how much editions are produced, whom they are sold to, can be important in case of determining the price when the edition is put on the market for resale. The buyer can demand transparency regarding these issues from the dealer.
What are other potential risks?
If the artwork in question is a print, which printing house that the print is made can be an important point. This contains the risk of the printing house unauthorizedly reproducing, distributing and reselling the work. There should be mutual trust or legal regulations specifying these matters, between the printing house and the artist or dealer. It is very difficult for the buyer to manage these risks effectively, so best advice would be a good research before purchasing, working with trusted, reputable institutions that can be hold accountable in case of any problems, or working with a trusted professional art advisor.
Other than that, the buyer, or his/her art advisor on behalf of the buyer, should carefully examine the material qualities of the work before purchase, often in dialogue with the artist or dealer. It is always possible that an edition can be left under sunlight that faded its colors, is worn out, stained or badly printed etc. It is always useful to control the edition upon delivery and request a signed confirmation note regarding the condition of the work from the dealer.