How Limiting is Limited?

20 October, 2008

For our new art project I have been doing some research into the rules of producing and pricing limited editions and I am quickly discovering that there seem to be no rules.

I started delving into the murky waters by looking at how an authoritative source such as Aperture sold their prints. A quick survey revealed that edition sizes can fluctuate wildly as can price and that the size of the print run did not necessarily have any bearing on the price. Sebastian Salgado’s photograph of coal miners in India is in an edition of 300 and sells at $10,000, while Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Merce Cunningham is in a smaller run of 100 and is quoted at $500.

Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight sold at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006 for $2,928,000, yet the same image, although not printed during Steichen’s lifetime or printed as the original was – a platinum and ferroprussiate print, is issued by Aperture in a print run of 500 with a $650 price tag.

What this has highlighted for me is that the practise of pricing and editioning art is open ended and has no agreed conventions.

In a special report Diane Smyth in the 10 Oct 2007 issue of the BJP asks what’s a photographic print worth? Smyth goes on to say that the value of photographic prints is “quite a lot” and it is certainly the case that art photography is undergoing a meteoric rise in the art world, both in the primary source of galleries and on the secondary market of auctions. While the credit crunch may see cut backs in investment funds, big corporations, such as Deutsche Borse, who have a long tradition of buying and investing in art, have in the last ten years included photography in their collections. Zelda Cheatle’s role as advisor to the Wealth Management Group, who launched a fund in 2007 to invest purely in photography is further evidence of this maturing of photography as an art medium. This patronage by the large art buyers, gives support to the high prices currently being set for some vintage and contemporary photography.

Art photography has borrowed its concept of editioning from traditional print makers and has made it its own. Whether using a hand print process or digital output, photographs are easily repeatable. While the potential to mass produce photography could be seen as the Achilles Heel of any attempt to legitimise photography as a limited art form, many artists have embraced limited edition print runs. Thereby creating the idea of rarity and mimicking the traditional short print runs of etchings and engravings, which were a consequence of the simple wearing out of the plate during the printing process.

Position in the edition adds another layer of rarity and contributes to the price of a print. As a print run moves towards the sell out point so the price rises, apparently reflecting its collectability and how the market determines its value. Where a print run of 20 may start at $5,000 the last five prints may end up selling for $15,000.

It would seem that size has begun to matter as well. There is a tendency in the gallery world towards the very large print, produced in editions of 3 or 5 and a smaller print of the same artwork produced in a bigger print run of perhaps 15 or 20.

So we have size of the print, size of the run, gallery exposure, being held in private and publicly funded archives and how many prints in an edition run have sold. All of these factors plus the reputation of the artist will influence the price tag of a photograph.

It has come as no surprise to me that when I meet up with photographers to talk about our new venture that one of the first things we talk about is this lack of ground rules and their concern about how the editioning of photography works and how best to do it.

For the moment my thinking is don’t worry. Work out a price that you feel comfortable with and if it reflects the amount of work you have undertaken to produce it then I would argue you are probably in the right ballpark. Also don’t worry about issuing an artwork in varied print dimensions as long as they are significantly different. What matters more than anything is keeping to what you decide. So if you make two or three sizes of prints in stated print runs, be open about it and stick to it.

Once your career has gone stratospheric then leave the black art of pricing artwork to the galleries, who probably have a better idea of the market and which way the wind is blowing.

2 Responses to “How Limiting is Limited?”

  1. Cai Broom Says:

    I found this article very interesting. This is a subject which has not been addressed often enough.

  2. Susie Mackie Says:

    Excellent blog Bridget – this article is both interesting and useful, thank you, and the links throughout the blog are great.

    Looking forward to the “stratospheric” bit..!

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