This column looks at several parts of fine art prints, including things you’ve likely heard of before but mayb have never known what they exactly meant: press proofs, artists proofs, states, limited editions, etc.
Fine art prints are often printed in editions. An edition will contain a finite and often known number of prints. There is the normal print run, then there are often additional editions, such as an artist’s proof edition or printer’s proof edition. The total print run is the sum of all of the editions.
70 regular prints + 20 Artist’s Proofs + 14 Printer’s Proofs + 10 other prints = 114 total prints.
Many collectors get a mistaken impression of rarity. They may see a print numbered out of 100 and don’t realize that additional and even larger editions of the print may exist. A rule of thumb is that prints in the regular edition usually far outnumber each of the other editions.
Artist’s proofs and printer’s proofs are not to be confused with proofs. Proofs are test prints made before the final print run. For example, the printer or artist may make a proof of a print to see how the design is coming along. Looking at the proof she may decide the print needs more red in the face, or more shading to a tree in the background. Proofs will often differ, if only slightly, from the final product.
Other than perhaps being printed on different paper or having minor printing differences, artist’s proofs and printer’s proofs are usually identical to the regular prints. Artist’s proofs are an additional edition meant for artist’s personal use, whether to keep, sell on the open market or give away to friends and acquaintances. Printer’s proofs are just like artist’s proofs, except they are made for the printer.
Other common editions include the following:
Hors D’ Commerce. Traditionally, these were prints made before the official print run used as a guide for the printer. In modern times, this term is often simply used as a name for an extra edition. In this modern sense, they are essentially the same as artist’s proofs and printer’s proofs.
Trial Proof. Traditionally a trial proof was used, in similar fashion as the Hors Commerce, as a guide for the printer. In modern times, they are often a name for an extra edition. They can be the same as the regular edition, or, as demonstrated by Andy Warhol, they can differ in color from the regular edition.
Numbers, letters and signatures
Current fine art print editions are often, though not always, hand numbered and/or signed by the artist, usually in pencil or crayon. Pen ink can be detrimental to a print, as it can bleed. This writing is often on the lower border area. Often times, the numbering indicates the number of prints in the edition. For example, an edition may be numbered 1/100, 2/100…., indicating that there are one hundred prints in the edition. Numbering can be found in Arabic (1, 2, 3) and Roman (I, II, III).
Unless someone in the know says so, it should not be assumed that the prints are numbered in order of printing (#1/100 is printed first, 3/100 is printed third), because they often aren’t. If one edition is numbered and another is not, it is reasonable to assume that the unnumbered had a larger print run. An ‘unlimited edition’ means there was no specified limit to how many prints there could be, and often means many prints were made.
In addition to possible numbering, prints often have handwritten or printed letters that identify the edition. The regular edition will ordinarily have no extra lettering. Common lettering for other editions are shown below. Most often the letters are next to the numbers, such as ‘AP 5/100’
Artist Proofs: AP or EA
Printer’s Proof: PP
Hors D’ Commerce: HC or HDC
Trial Proof: TP
Some editions are hand signed by the artist, and some or not. The catalogue raisonne, the official listing of an artists arworks usually will detail how an edition is signed, numbered and labeled. For more about the catalogues raisonne, read this past column.
Some prints are plate signed. This means that the artist’s signature was made into the printing plate and printed with the rest of the printed design. In other words a ‘plate signed Salvador Dali engraving’ means it is not autographed/hand signed by Dali. The signature is a faux signature or pre-printed part of the graphics. If Sotheby’s or some respected dealer says a print is ‘hand signed,’ then it’s autographed by hand.
Some editions are made a long period, sometimes even decades, after the original printing. Catalogues raisonne will usually list the dates of all editions. Ordinarily, the earliest editions are the most valuable, especially when the later editions are not authorized or signed by the artist.
To prevent later printing, artists and printers often ruin the printing plate. This is called canceling or striking the plate. Sometimes they will make a print of the defaced plate as evidence that the plate was cancelled. A cancellation print may show a bold defacing cross across the graphics, proving no more prints can be made.
Whether due to wear with use or by the artist’s intentional reworking, printing plates can change over time. These changes result in prints in different states. These changes may be minor or they may be extensive.
Intaglio plates often wear down during printing, resulting in later state prints that are lighter and with less detail.
Printing plates and prints often went through several states. This is most commonly done during the creation of the printing plate, when the artist makes test prints, or proofs, in order to see how the work is coming. The artist will use the proof to see what additions or changes need to be made to the design.
After the first publication of a print, changes are sometimes made. If areas of an intaglio plate have worn down due to excessive printing, details may have to be put back in. In all types of prints, the text may be changed or the image cropped to suit a different purpose. Artists often feel compelled to embellish or change details of print for later editions.
Baseball cards often come in different states, with a player’s team or the coloring of the letters or borders changing. In some cases a baseball card will come with different pictures of the player. So the card collector is familiar with prints in different ‘states’ even if he was unfamiliar with the art term.
As mentioned, artists sometimes sign their prints, usually on numbered limited editions. Hand signing prints is a relatively modern phenomenon, starting in the 1800s. Original old Rembrandt and Albrecht Durer prints weren’t autographed.
In modern times, the artist’s hand signature on an original print shows that the print was personally approved as finished by the artist. The artist signs it when it’s all finished and meets his or her approval. Prints that didn’t come out right go unsigned and are often literally destroyed and tossed in the trash. This explains why art collectors pay more for a hand signed original print by a famous artist. The extra price is not just because it’s autographed, but because the autographed indicates the print was personally okayed by the artist.
In cases, a print of a celebrity has both the signature of the celebrity and the artist. This is the case with some Andy Warhol screen prints, including prints of Mick Jagger, Wayne Gretzky and Pete Rose. Many prints by sports artist Leroy Neiman are signed by both Neiman and the athlete. The purchaser of the print often got the athlete’s signature at an autograph show or private signing.
A hand signature by the artist does not in and of itself prove a print original. Many modern artists were celebrities during their lifetime and were asked by fans to sign reprint posters, postcards, books, photos and even baseballs. As with all celebrities, artists’ signatures have been and will be forged.
In some cases an original print will come with a LOA for the famous artist’s autograph, say from PSA/DNA or JSA. The LOA won’t be for the overall print, just the autograph.