Limited Edition Prints. Should I Sell Them? Should I Buy Them?

Let me start by saying I don’t issue limited edition prints myself. Although some would argue that I sell so few prints they are all, in fact, limited editions. 🙂

I came across an article this morning commenting on a court case in the US. In the case a very serious collector of limited edition prints by the photographer William Eggleston had complained to the courts because Eggleston (or his estate) had issued a new “limited edition” of a famous print of his, some years after the original edition had sold out. You can read about the case here.
Here is the image concerned, one of Egglestons most famous, Untitled 1970  © Christies Images LTD
(I do love the image and it has become rather iconic over the years).
The basic issue the collector had was that the same image was used, albeit in a different size and using a different print process and this devalued his considerable investment in the original limited edition (his original print reportedly costing him $250,000). 
The judge disagreed, ruling in Egglestons favour, saying that the new edition was completely different from the first. The image was the same but the size, paper and print process (the original edition was dye sublimation, the new one digital) and these differences made the new edition justifiable and in the judges opinion had no effect on the value of the original edition. (It might even be argued that the original edition now gained even more collectibility as elevated above other, later editions).
Egglestons lawyers explained they felt this judgement was good for artists and collectors. Many collectors disagree.
This case raises lots of interesting questions and issues around limited edition prints. I will attempt to deal with some of them here and put my point of view, but I would be interested in your views and comments too as this is a volatile and debatable issue from both the artist and collectors point of view.
Firstly, how do limited editions work (or how are they supposed to work)? The idea is the photographer declares that they will only sell a set number of prints of a certain image. This is done to add kudos and collectibility to the image. It is designed to give a rarity value. 
To claim very high prices for prints, photographers who are collectible will sell very small editions of, say, just five prints. In the most select art photography case, photographers sell the single print in existence along with the negative (these are most often analogue images, not digital, so shot on film or glass plate negatives etc). The print and negative come with a certificate from the photographer stating there are no other copies in existence. This is as close as a photograph comes to being a unique piece of art in the way a painting or piece of sculpture is. Needless to say, from the right photographer, these pieces can  command very high prices.
Editions more commonly run to ten, twenty or more. Michael Kenna issues forty five prints in each of his editions, as an example. The photographer has to decide whether to sell every. Print in the edition at the same price, or to increase the price gradually as the edition gets closer to selling out. This encourages early buyers to invest in editions and creates a perceived (if not real) increase in value, making the prints seem even more desirous and collectible. Michael Kenna, for example starts his editions at around £1300 a print and this rises over time until an edition getting close to selling out has prints selling for £6000 or £7000 each.
Once runs get above fifty prints you have to start to ask yourself if they are truly limited. Owning number 879 of 1000 doesn’t really cut the mustard in my view. Having said that, if you are paying less than £100 for the print, you can hardly complain. As I have shown in previous blog posts, photographers who charge less than £100 a print are actually selling at a loss. They may think they are making a big profit over the cost of paper and ink, but they are ignoring the true costs of making the photograph. You cannot run a photography business full time on print sales and price your work on a cost plus basis. You will soon go bankrupt. It shows a lack of understanding of business and finance. But that is a whole other topic. So having a massive limited edition run is really just a marketing tool to give some perceived value which, if we are truly honest, doesn’t really exist. If we produce 250 prints of a sunset and we are not a collectible photographer is that print really going to increase in value because it is number 139 of 250. Not really. Not if we are honest.
However, in researching this piece I was astounded to read that Peter Lik’s “limited editions” are of 950 with an additional 45 artists proofs. Personally, I feel this is taking limited editions too far and exploiting collectors, but his images almost all sell out and the values often increase. (Many by huge amounts- some collectors of his work have made very handsome profits from selling on his images after editions have sold out). So there are no rules (and no accounting for taste, either). His collectors are obviously happy or they wouldn’t buy and many of his prints sell out before they even hit his shops so demand is huge. (Is this down to the quality of his work, his skill as a marketeer, or investors knowing they can make a return on their investment?)
If we do decide to sell our work as limited editions, and it is a personal decision and can work very well for us, we have to get set up properly. This is a matter of integrity. If you tell people they have a limited edition print, that’s exactly what it should be. You should be able to prove it. So the edition needs to be recorded and documented. A spreadsheet should be kept, forever, and be kept accurately logging every sale and print number. This tends to be okay when we enthusiastically start offering a print. But come five years later and we have only sold five copies of our limited edition of fifty are we still prepared to maintain the records? Lets be honest. Most of us, myself included, don’t sell huge volumes of prints and so editions of these sizes will take years to sell out. For me it would take a lifetime!
Each print needs to be signed by you (with a pen that does not harm the print and does not fade or change colour with age, or with pencil), it needs to be dated (probably) and many photographers go to the added expense of buying an embossing tool of their logo which they emboss into the paper. This adds a feeling of genuiness and quality. It is a good marketing tool and worth the expense if you at going to run limited editions (or even if you are doing open editions).
Hahnemhule also sell a kit with certificates you can print to issue with the print and each has a hologram too, to add genuiness. All this adds weight to your offering and real collectors expect such refinements. They are paying you a lot more for it, after all.
Pricing of limited editions is tricky. What often happens is a photographer sets a price and an edition run of say twenty five and it starts to sell well. They then realise they could have charged more or sold many more. Pound signs in the eyes kick in. They now want to sell more editions and do what Eggleston has done, varying the size or paper to justify the new edition. 
So when you set your price you can adopt Kennas model and increase the price as the edition sells out. He is very upfront about this, so no deception is involved. Early buyers know they are getting a ‘bargain’ while those late to the party pay for being slow off the mark. 
Or, you can decide how much you want to make from an image and be content with that. So you make a nice image and decide to sell twenty five limited edition prints. You decide you would like that image to make you £5000 and so you price each print at £200 each. 
The issue is always one of greed. If a print does well, photographers might start to wish they could sell more. They worry that this steady source of income will soon dry up,when the edition sells out. What if they they don’t take many really popular images. Their income will drop as they realise they don’t have anything quite as good to take its place. This is where true professionals are out constantly shooting, trying to find the next image to replace their better sellers that are selling out. They accept when an edition has gone its gone, just as a painter paints a canvas, sells it and then has to paint another.
An additional layer of complexity comes in the form of poster prints. Although many well known and collected photographers sell limited edition prints at high prices you can also buy poster prints of the same images from them. So, going back to Michael Kenna as an example, but the same would be true of many others, you can buy posters of his images for £20/£30 or so. You can buy his images on calendars and in his books. Now the posters and calendars, while very nice are not printed to the same quality as one of his hand printed darkroom prints, but the image is identical. Does this devalue the limited edition? They do allow mere mortals like me to own an image from a photographer whose work I love and couldn’t afford any other way. How else could I own “Storm Clearing” by Ansel Adams, for example, if it wasn’t for posters?
Recently in fourteen US states a law has been passed to begin to regulate Limited Editions. There is a fascinating blog post by Joshua Kauffman who is a lawyer on this subject. You can read it here . In the article he shows just how some artists and photographers had really pushed their “limited editions”, necessitating the law change. It makes fascinating reading.
I also found a very interesting blog by an artist, Stuart Duffin, on the etiquette surrounding limited edition proofs and it includes some very interesting details about the abbreviations you find on editions which can tell you a lot about what you are actually buying. This too is worth reading here.
I wonder if, for most photographers, issuing limited editions is done more for our own self esteem than or any real value for our customers? It’s much nicer to say the print we are selling is “limited”. It certainly is a useful marketing tool and there is no harm in exploiting that as long as we don’t make any claims, actual or implied, that what our customers are buying is definitely going to become collectible or soar in value. And who is to say it won’t? Every now an then a new talent emerges and their early work becomes hugely valuable. It might just be yours. Customers also like to think they are buying something “limited”, even if subconsciously they realise it is not really of huge or rising value. They just like the feeling that buying a limited edition gives them over a regular print, and if the customer likes this, who are we to deprive them of it.
There are no hard and fast rules respecting LE prints (except in some US states now and that may well increase). So it is down to each of us to decide if we are going to offer them and if we are, how we will operate the system. What is important, in my view, if we o offer LE prints, is that we are totally. Upfront, honest and transparent with our customers so they know exactly what they are getting and what we may possibly also do in the future too.
I am not famous enough, nor is my work collectible, so as I said at the outset, I don’t issue limited edition prints of my work. If things change and I suddenly become the Banksy of the photography world I may have to alter how I work, but I can’t see that happening any time soon, if ever.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts…

One comment on “Limited Edition Prints. Should I Sell Them? Should I Buy Them?

  1. Andrew Page on

    Hi Doug – enjoyed this post after I had seen the same news story and some of your tweets. You were quick to get this written! I sell a number of mounted and unmounted prints as open editions (at too low a price if honest) and it had been suggested to me on several occasions to try the limited edition approach ‘to make more money’. I have resisted thus far largely because I don’t have an ego that allows me to believe for a minute that I am a ‘collectable’ artist. I think you are spot on when you say that “from the right photographer, these pieces can command very high prices” with the emphasis, I feel, being on from the RIGHT photographer. I feel this wouldn’t be justified from a ‘nobody’ (like me), however good the pictures might be. If it was just down to rarity we could all be rich by just issuing one print! I know this is likely to ruffle a few feathers but I am irked by those who feel able to artificially inflate prices this way when they are clearly not ‘collectable’ The likes of Michael Kenna have spent years building their reputation and have proven prowess that comes from having an outstanding talent recognised by peers and buyers alike. My view is that its OK to do the LE thing when you have attained this level and it bestowed rather than self proclaimed. This is probably why I will always remain cash poor as a photographer following my heart and principles. The whole integrity thing is important to me too and I would feel I had cheated previous buyers had I done what William Eggleston had even if it is legal and ‘allowed’. In my book that doesn’t make it right! I’m sure others will disagree but that’s what makes a good debate 🙂

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