What is an original print?

Many mechanical reproduction methods have surfaced since the onset of digital imaging, making very high quality prints available for a reasonable price.  An unfortunate by-product of this “revolution” has been confusion and outright misrepresentation in the art market.  The issue is not whether these reproductions are faithful to the original, or even whether the claims of archival integrity are in fact accurate.  The onus is now on the producers and sellers of art at all levels to clearly identify and differentiate between the original fine art print and the reproduction.

The art collector is often faced with a bewildering array of terms, such as “iris” prints, “giclée” prints, “limited edition” posters, fine art “reprographic” prints signed and numbered by the artist, etc. etc.  Some of these are very expensive processes, produced on very expensive machines, offered in the finest galleries, but they are, nevertheless, simply copies.

An original limited-edition fine art print is a work conceived and developed by the artist for the purpose (usually) of making an edition.  The artist creates an image on a matrix, such as a litho-stone (for lithography), or a copper plate (for etching), etc.  Each print (impression) in an edition is printed (pulled) by the artist, or in close collaboration with a professional printer, in a quantity determined by the artist.  In the case of mono printing the artist will pull single prints from the matrix instead of an edition.  It is standard practice today for an artist to indicate the number of prints in a particular edition and to number each print in sequence.  This is designed to guarantee the authenticity and originality of prints in the art market.  For instance, 5/15 indicates that this is the fifth impression pulled from an edition of 15 prints. In addition to the numbered prints, a fine art edition usually includes “artist’s proofs,” designated “AP,” in a quantity 5% – 10% of the total number of prints in the edition.

These numbers or letters are usually written beneath or beside the print and constitute the artist’s guarantee that no more than the designated number of print will be pulled.  It is customary, once the full edition has been printed, for the artist to deface or permanently mark the plate from which the prints were pulled.  This is called canceling the plate.  In addition to numbering the edition, the artist signs the print and usually titles it.  As additional documentation, printmakers should accompany their prints with a “certificate of authenticity.”  This is appreciated by many collectors and should be asked for as a further guarantee of the work’s origins.  This certificate usually includes the artist’s signature, as well as the following information:

*The total number of prints in the edition
*The number of this impression
*Who did the actual printing
*The date of the printing
*The techniques and materials employed

When the art buyer becomes able to differentiate between the original print and the reproduction, the question may then be asked, “What difference does it make?”  The answer to this question is practical, esthetic and philosophical.  It is a practical question if the buyer wants to get fair value for the price paid.  An original print is inherently more valuable, and in most cases, will be archivally more secure.  It will be esthetically more pleasing because ink on paper will have the tactile quality, surface texture and tonal nuance that pixels simply cannot transmit.  Philosophically, owning an original hand-pulled fine art print connects you to a five-hundred- year-old tradition.  It physically introduces you to the thoughts and passions of the artist, where you share the ownership of one of a limited number of handcrafted works.  As Tristan Tzara once said, “Human imperfection does seem to have more worthy merit than the precision of machines.”