Edition, series, multiples….
If you are confused about the notions of limited edition, open edition, original edition, artist edition, multiple editions, series, and other obscure art concepts, please read my take on it.
Original vs Reproduction.
If you are a painter applying pigmented oil on a piece of canvas, your finished work will be a unique original. Unique because not even the artist can ever make an exact duplicate and original because it is not a copy of another artwork and because no one else can make an exact copy either.
The customer is certain that its acquisition is a unique one-off and the artist or the dealer can supply a document certifying that it is indeed a unique work and providing other information about the piece. This is called a certificate of authenticity.
Now, the artist or an art dealer may want to sell copies of this original. Copies of the original can be printed by various methods, in many different formats, at different scale, on many different supports. Such copies are called reproductions. Multiple reproductions made in the same manner, at the same scale, on the same support are part of an “edition”. There can be several editions made at different scale or on different support.
Limited vs Open
These editions of reproductions can be limited in numbers or not. It is important that the client knows what they are buying and each copy in a limited edition will be marked with two numbers separated by a backslash.
The second number is the number of copies that will ever be made as part of this edition, and the first number is the sequence number of the particular copy you are looking at.
An edition that has no limit on the number of reproductions that will be made is called an “open edition” and each reproduction is marked with a single number, the sequence number of the copy. There is no end to the number of copies that can legitimately be made. Please note that I said legitimately instead of legally as none of this is regulated by any kinds of civil or commercial law, it is only common understanding. (Which can still be legally challenged, under a fair-trading act, for instance.)
So far, so good. But things get more complicated.
Why limiting the numbers of reproductions in an edition?
There are two main reasons.
The first reason is historical and technological. Before the 19th century and the emergence or photography and other technological advances, the only means of printing a reproduction was to engrave a negative image on a stone (lithography) or on a block of wood (woodcut) or on a metal plate (etching) and then applying ink on the engraved medium before printing it on a support such as paper under a press to obtain a positive image reminiscent of the original.
After many times under the press, the engraving would become less sharp, and the quality of the printed reproductions would gradually suffer after each passage under the press. The reproduction would be numbered with a sequence number to indicate the quality level of each reproduction. The higher the number, the lower the quality and therefore the lower the value. Number 1 would fetch vastly more money than number 56. Fair enough.
Editors could decide to voluntarily limit the number of copies that will ever be made to ensure the quality of the entire edition and therefore preserve the value of each copy. The number of copies in an edition was dependant on the technology used. As an example, a copper plate can be put under the press 20 to 30 times before the loss of quality becomes noticeable and most etching editions were limited to 30 copies.
A copy part of a limited edition had more commercial value than an open edition because of its guaranteed quality. This created a perception that rarity has value.
The notion of rarity.
This perception of the value of rarity has perdured and has since become entrenched. Modern technological advances make it possible to produce an unlimited number of perfect copies, but editions are still being limited to take advantage of this idea that rarity has value and to extract more money from the buyers.
In fact, rarity has no value at all. It is only the reputation of the artist that gives an artwork its commercial value. A bronze copy of a Degas prototype ballerina cast in several thousand copies has vastly more commercial value that a unique masterpiece made by a complete unknown. This misconception is being vigorously promoted by artists and dealers hoping to take advantage of the public ignorance and to make more money from something that has no real fundamental value.
The Philistines, most of us, do not really care about rarity. The only value we see in a work of art is emotional. We love it and we want it on our wall. I have 3 Picassos on my walls, purchased by my wife. I love having them gracing our home. They are quality reproductions on good paper glued on board. They are well made and will probably outlast the originals. I love them. They have zero commercial value, and I do not need to subscribe to an insurance. They can be easily replaced if need be. It is only the investors that are taking advantage of this false notion of rarity having value, hoping that some other misguided investor will pay vastly more for it in the not-too-distant future with the only objective of fleecing the next idiot in line. But in truth, both the original and the reproduction have the exact emotional value and the exact same decorative qualities, regardless of how many copies have been made.
I also have many unique originals on my walls, mostly gifted by artist friends. They also have zero commercial value because none of my friends are famous artists, even my dead friends.
Like with most cult, the sanctity of uniqueness and rarity is misguided and driven by negative motivations such as greed, ignorance, myths, misconceptions, rituals, and almost religious fervour. Yet, old habits and mistaken belief are hard to dislodge.
What about sculpture?
A sculpture is a 3-dimensional object that has either been manually carved or shaped out of a block of material (stone, wood, polystyrene, metal etc…), shaped by putting together all kinds of medium such as clay, wax, plasticine or bits and pieces of anything (multimedia), or modelled digitally as a mesh file that can be represented in virtual 3D on an electronic device.
This block of sandstone, oak, clay, forged metal, wax, or this digital file constitute the unique original created manually by the artist (even a digital file is created manually.)
A wood or stone carving can be sold as is, as a unique original, a clay can be fired and sold as a unique original, so can a bend and welded piece of metal, or a multimedia assemblage. But an original in wet clay, soft wax, polystyrene, low grade timber or a digital file must be reproduced in some other durable and solid material. A mould must be taken to cast copies in bronze and other metals, resin, glass, or, in the case of a digital file, 3D printed, or CNC carved, in a variety of materials. A mould can also be made on an original wood or stone carving to make reproductions, in bronze for instance.
Most sculptures are indeed copies of an original pattern and these copies can be reproduced many times out of a mould or of a digital file. There is typically no limitation of the numbers of copies that can be made without any loss of quality. Artists are still being asked to limit the numbers of copies in an edition so that more money can be extracted from the gullible buyer believing that rarity has value.
This has the net effect of consigning the artists to poverty while alive in the vain hope that they will eventually become famous and therefore valuable, perhaps after death, which is highly improbable. I dislike this idea very much.
In an attempt to survive and to circumvent these restrictive traditions, artists and dealers have come up with the idea of releasing several different “limited” editions of the same piece, called series. You can make different series of the same shape in different material, at different scale and different colour and call them “limited edition”. This is what I do with “Rosie” which exists in different series of limited numbers in different material, colours and scale. This nomenclature and terminology is really just an attempt to give credentials and legitimacy to the practice of selling more of the same, an attempt to derive an income from your art, despite restrictive and misguided perceptions. Both the artist and its dealers, who are selling more, and the buyers and collectors, who do not miss out on a sold-out limited edition, are benefiting, all at the expense of the investors. I see this as a good thing.
Why editions of 8?
Why not 3, 10 or 12 or anything else?
It is true that there is a tradition, specially for bronze castings, of setting the edition number at 8. I am not entirely sure but here is what I believe to be the historical reason for that number.
Back in the seventies, when this stupid and unfair tax we call VAT or GST was introduced in France and in the UK, it was decided that, to help the poor, struggling artists, original artworks would be allowed a much lower rate of VAT. Rules and regulations had to be established to decide what constitutes art and what does not, to prevent the clever fraudster from selling bicycle wheels as artworks at a lower rate of VAT.
I the case of multiple editions, such as bronze castings, someone, somewhere in an office in a Ministry decided that 8 and below would be considered art and anything above 8 would be considered industrial production and slapped with the full VAT. Why 8? That remains a mystery, please enlighten me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Artists would obviously make as much as they can: 8. And all bronze editions became 8. It has since become a tradition that has spread over the world and many people still believe that if it is not 8, it is not really art.
Yet again, good intentions have had the opposite effect of what was intended, and this notion ends up restricting instead of helping the artists.
What is an artist edition?
The concept of artist edition also originates from old traditions. When etchings on copper plates were fashionable and their edition was limited to 20 to 30 copies due to technological limitations as explained above, the 30 copies were sold to the public and to prove that no other copies would ever be printed, the original copper plate was destroyed and exhibited with one or two deep gashes carved across it. Today, the artist can keep a photograph, but at the time the artists, dealers, galleries had nothing left, no memento of their work. It became accepted that artists be allowed to print a small number of extra copies, generally 4, to be kept as archive, and called the Artist Edition as opposed to the Original Edition.
This concept has since been extended not only to etchings on copper plate but to any kind of multiple editions and allows the artist to sell just a few more over and above the limited edition.
To be immediately distinguishable from the original edition, the artist edition is numbered in Roman numbers instead of Arab numbers. I/IV instead of 1/4
When the number of bronze casting was eventually set at 8, the traditional artist edition size of 4 was adopted as the standard. A bronze will often be cast 12 times. 8 times as part of the original edition numbered from 1/8 to 8/8 and 4 times as part of the artist edition numbered from I/IV to IV/IV sometimes alongside the initials AE.
Most artists will happily sell all 12 copies and do not really care about keeping an archive. We just need the money.
Ethics and deontology.
Regardless of what I think, I must play by the rules of the game, even if these rules make no real sensible sense. Still, like many other artists, I grant myself the right to set my edition at whatever size I see fit and refuse to submit to mindless traditions. My edition can be 3, 5, 8, 10, 25 and even 200. The only important thing is that I guarantee never to make more than stated in my edition numbering. Unlike a copper plate that can be destroyed to make it impossible to ever make a new copy, there is no point destroying the mould as a new mould can always be made from one of the copies. Likewise, my original digital mesh file can never be deleted from all devices, cloud platforms and backups and the client has only my words as a guarantee. It becomes a matter of trust.
Should a reproduction part of an open edition be cheaper than a limited edition? Should a limited edition be cheaper than a unique piece?
Each are made one by one with the same amount of love, time, effort, skills, expertise, and material. All carry the same cost to manufacture. The only factor really influencing the asking price is offer and demand. The notion of limited edition is restricting the offer, but that has zero influence on the price if there is no demand. The only factor influencing demand is the reputation of the artist, not the quality of the work, not the number of copies made. I raise my prices as my reputation grows, secretly hoping that I can one day ask incongruous amounts of money for my stuff, limited or not.
Besides, furthermore, and non notwithstanding, be assured that the production of an artist is necessarily limited, by god’s own design. After I am dead there will never be another new Olivier Duhamel ever made. You can buy my stuff in complete confidence of that being absolutely true.
Thanks for reading me this far. email@example.com if you wish to react.
If you want to learn more: what is a limited edition in art – Google Search