Trends Fairs Market USA

How to collect art by numbers

Limited editions and multiples demystified

Eko Nugroho’s Photo series (Eruption of Corruption), 2013, which is available in an edition of two

A Julian Opie for $8,500 (Alan Cristea Gallery, A12), a Richard Prince for $15,000 (Two Palms, B24), a Richard Tuttle for £15,000 (Crown Point Press, A11)—has the art market tanked overnight? Fortunately, all is still healthy, but prospective buyers looking for more affordable works by their favourite artists should head to the area by door C where 13 galleries form the fair’s new Edition section.

A glance at the works here shows how varied and loose the category can be. “Edition”, in general, is a catch-all word for works that are in multiples, that is, not unique. These range from Old Master prints to contemporary virtual images, and employ processes ranging from the traditional (lithography, screenprinting, etching) to high-tech, commercial manufacturing techniques.

At Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), Alan Cristea Gallery has Joseph Albers screenprints (Ten Variants, 1967, editions of 300, up to $3,650 each), a Christiane Baumgartner woodcut on kozo paper (Game Over, 2011, edition of six, $11,800) and a light-box with digitally printed images by Michael Craig-Martin (Light Bulb, 2013, edition of 15, $6,800). Photographs also qualify—at STPI (B18), Eko Nugroho’s Photo series (Eruption of Corruption), 2013, comes in an edition of two (around $5,000)—as does sculpture—witness Jenny Holzer’s granite Truism Footstall, 1988, at Carolina Nitsch (A7, edition of 40, $85,000)—as do film stills (Tactia Dean’s JG (offset), 2013, edition of 12, €50,000).

The Edition section also has a wealth of “multiples”, which generally refers to works made using contemporary manufacturing techniques, such as the playful Anna Blessmann and Peter Saville placeholders at Paul Stolper (B22, prices from £500, editions of 20). Stolper has also brought a unique work, challenging the attempted delineation of the category: Jeremy Deller’s silkscreen-on-perspex John, Paul, Love George-Please, Ringo, Brian, Never 4-Get Stu, 1992, priced at $85,000.

The Edition section at the fair aims to attract both specialist buyers of editions and “those who are new to the art market and want the possibility of buying artists that they know without committing too much,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of the Art Basel fairs. Edition has been a section within the Basel fair since 1993.

“There is a lot of interest in the editions market as prices for [unique] works by contemporary artists are really high,” says Emi Eu, the director of STPI. Indeed, Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000, sold at Christie’s in November for a staggering $58.4m, while at Art Basel Miami Beach a set of five screenprints by the artist are at Carolina Nitsch for a relatively reasonable $200,000 (Monkey Train, (Complete Suite), 2007, edition of 40).

Democracy in action

Yet while the lower prices have helped turn an unloved category into a relevant and healthy market of its own, they also demonstrate that multiple objects are still seen as a poor relation to unique works, still the most desired.

Alan Cristea says that several artists—particularly photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth—make works that “are printed editions, but are not called ‘prints’ because somehow it doesn’t suit the artist or gallery to describe them as such.”

Perhaps because of this lesser-category status, sharing artists is not a problem. For example, Cristea publishes all of Julian Opie’s limited-edition prints and animations, while the artist is represented by Lisson Gallery (J1); Cristea also sells new, edition works by Dexter Dalwood and Michael Craig-Martin, all artists in the Gagosian stable (K12). “I’m sure they’re delighted that we’re reaching a far wider audience by selling works at lower prices,” Cristea says.

Cristea and many other Edition exhibitors, underline the point that multiple works are still “original” if the artist intended them to be in that form. For some artists, making edition works was, and is, core to their practices—Cristea highlights Joseph Albers and Richard Hamilton in this respect. For many others, edition works offer a democratic accessibility beyond price points. Cristea cites his artists Gordon Cheung and Julian Opie as examples of those who “are excited not only by what the mediums offer them in terms of ‘making’, but also how making editions enables a wider audience to experience their work.”

This is in keeping with the mass market that art, in particular contemporary art, is now attracting. Even unique works are now blasted across all media with values going up as works become increasingly recognisable. “Enabling everyone to have some engagement” with art is one of the distinctions of works in edition, says Rory Blain, the director of Sedition, which sells digital, limited-edition works, many for less than £50. His website has teamed up with the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, to sell two of Tracey Emin’s digital neon works for $80 each (edition of 2,000) that are on the museum’s microsite for her current exhibition (“Tracey Emin: Angel Without You”, until 9 March 2014).

Valuation minefield

Despite lower prices and lofty ambitions to democratise collecting, understanding the inner workings of the diverse edition market is in many ways more of a minefield than for unique works. The same issues of condition, rarity and demand exist, but a new set of rules affecting value also comes into play.

Primarily, the number of works in each edition has an effect: generally, the fewer the pricier. Since numbering became standard practice in the mid-1960s, the preferred total has come down. Experts say that their edition size threshold is around 20, while this used to be in the hundreds or even thousands.

Sometimes the prices of works in an edition are “dynamic”, obeying the basic rule of supply and demand by going up as more editions run out. In addition, as a hangover from works made from a printing press (where the first print was the clearest and best quality), there is still some value ascribed to works higher up the pecking order (edition two of 20 is, for example, deemed better than edition 12). However, says Murray Macaulay, a director in Christie’s prints department and the director of London’s Multiplied Art Fair, this dynamic should not apply to works that use contemporary techniques: “One of 50 should be the same as 50 of 50—claiming anything else amounts to market manipulation.”

Proof positive

As well as the total number of works in an edition and the specific number that accompanies a work on show, edition works often also have an additional “AP” (artist’s proof) figure and, sometimes, a “PP” (printer’s proof) number. These also refer back to earlier practices to the time when an artist would create a proof during the manufacturing process and sometimes set aside a portion of the edition for the patron or publisher who had funded their work. Again, says Macaulay, these “shouldn’t really make a difference to their price, unless they are unique in some way” but, in practice, APs have a niche appeal and can sell for up to 30% more than the other works in the edition (they are unofficially limited to 10% of the total edition size, and capped at 20 editions, so create an even more limited pool, albeit often of the identical works).

Other factors need to be taken into account, such as signatures, which affect value. For example, at Alan Cristea Gallery, the 200 signed Ten Variants, 1967, screenprints by Albers cost $3,650 each, while the 100 unsigned works from the same edition are priced at $2,650. Blain says that Sedition’s digital prints—which buck the trend for smaller edition sizes, and can run to 10,000—come with a digital certificate of authenticity, signed by the artist and by him. A printer or publisher’s stamp (known as their “chop”) is also sometimes included on a finished edition print (and all proofs).

Issues of authenticity point to a major concern surrounding editions: what is to stop an artist or manufacturer simply making new works from the same source? Earlier this year a lawsuit concerning the later printing in larger format of limited edition works by the photographer William Eggleston found against the plaintiff, who had argued that the price of the smaller format works he owned had been devalued by the new works.

While there are untested grey areas, Nils Borch Jensen Gallery (B16) says that “edition works that seem strange do pop up sometimes but if I were to do something unethical, my business would be finished completely.”

He says that the fair’s Edition section should help the uninitiated collector navigate the choppy waters: “If you have a slight speck on your name you’d be out of here. And nobody wants that.”

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