The Artful Collector: Art Hierarchies #4: Originals are Better than Reproductions

Sleeper Flight by Dean DEAN MORRISSEY (American 20th Century). Sleeper Flight, Ship of Dreams book cover, 1991. Oil on canvas. 30 x 40 inMorrissey 1992 L.E. Lithographic Print #486/1250
Sleeper Flight by artist DEAN MORRISSEY – Ship of Dreams book cover, 1991. Oil on canvas. 30″ x 40″ Original art purchased 1991 Lunacon convention from the artist $4,200 and sold 2008 for $11, 650 (Heritage Auction). Signed LE  lithographic print from Millpond Press, 1992, one of 1250 original price $195., sold on eBay August 2013 for $40.

No doubt about it.  This is one of those statements that is guaranteed to get people riled up.  Especially if I use the commonly used term for referring to reproductions, today . . . “prints”.  Why purchase the original when a (less expensive) “limited edition” print is available?  Especially if – as many fans of sf/f art claim – “I’m in love with the image, and not the value of that image some day,” what’s wrong with that?  Nothing, nothing at all.  I would be the first, in fact, to encourage you NOT to buy art as an investment, i.e. something that might be worth more – some day.  But that is not the point of this post.  Which is simply to explain why it’s not a matter of buying originals because they might be worth more; it’s rather a matter of not buying reproductions because they will almost certainly have no value at all.  Except as “decoration.”   Say and do what you like, but it’s Unique Works of Art that are bequeathed to heirs and get passed down to future generations, that are what countries build institutions to protect, that are what museums are interested in safe-guarding, that are what collectors covet, and are what have therefore the highest value, both culturally and asset-wise.

Original Prints and Reproductions

Not all “prints” are equal.  All are artworks produced in multiples and are “copies” of each other.  However: while a print can be a reproduction (a copy made by printing), a reproduction may not nececessarily be a print.  Put another way, a print can be a reproduction of an original work of art (as a painting) produced by photomechanical means (offset lithograph, photocopy, giclee’) or it can be one of several “impressions” made on paper using a recognized graphic-arts process in which the artist has created the master image on the plate, block, stone, screen, or transfer paper and has printed it themself or under their supervision.  The Print Council of America distinguishes these from mechanical or photographic reproductions that are executed neither by the artist nor (typically) under their supervision with the term “original print”  (HarperCollins Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, 1991).

The point is that “original prints” made via woodcut/block print, etching, silkscreen/serigraph, or classic lithographic process (stone, copper plate) are  – by their method of

Pablo Picasso, “La Femme Qui Pleure I” (1937) $5,122,500 at Christie’s New York, November 1, 2011.
Pablo Picasso, “La Femme Qui Pleure I” (1937) $5,122,500 at Christie’s New York, November 1, 2011. The most expensive original modern print….to date.

production – multiple originals (i.e., each unique) and limited in number.  That is because the image starts to deteriorate after a certain number of prints are produced.  Sooner or later – and usually well before 200 impressions are taken – the stone, plate or stencil wears out.  When the artist decides that no additional prints will be made, he or she obliterates the image (for example, by cleaning the lithographic stone or washing off the screen) or by cancelling the printing surface (defacement).  With photomechanical reproduction methods, on the other hand, there is no limit on the number that can be produced, each identical, and the original (prototype) remains intact and available for further copying and reproducing.

Printmakers are proud of what they do, and many collectors consider original prints to be treasures of the art world. There are subcategories to the original print market: “old masters,” “impressionist/modern” and “contemporary” – and lest you confuse the value of original prints with those of reproductions, the highest examples in any of these categories will surpass that of the highest priced original art in the sf/f genre, and even that of the classic American illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell.

Spending your money wisely

There is no right or wrong art and no right or wrong way to buy it or collect it.  You can buy what you like, and there can be good, and valid reasons for buying reproductions.  Original artworks cost more, and (often) require more effort to display and preserve.  But it is a good idea, whenever you are considering a purchase, to be intelligent about it.  If you are one of those people who – no matter how much you can afford to spend on art – prefer to spend your money wisely, then it is important for you to realize that no matter how limited or beautiful reproductions of originals are, they are among the least important and collectible examples of an artist’s work.  If you buy a reproduction, you are buying temporary pleasure and decorative value.  Original works of art, whether multiple or one-of-a-kind tend to hold their value.  Reproductions do not.

The differences between copy prints and original prints can get confusing, because reproductions, or “copy prints” are often represented, and described, using the same terms traditionally reserved for “original prints.”  Signed and numbered. . . limited edition . . . artist’s proof. . . Are labels attached to artworks that are little more than digital or photo-reproduced copies of originals that are produced by digital printers or commercial publishing companies.  Many signed and numbered serigraphs, lithographs and giclees’ (computer prints) fall into this category.  Just like original prints, for example, these may be signed in pencil on the lower right-hand margin of the print, close to the bottom of the impression.  In limited editions, the artist also records in the margin – typically the bottom left – the title, and size of the edition and the number of the “proof” (any print in the edition).  But in offset lithographs, or giclees’, only the signature is meaningful.  The limitation (size of the edition), and the A/P (artist proof) designation are fictions designed to artificially elevate the value of the print through what is known in the collectibles market place as “manufactured rarity”.  Neither the number in the edition nor A/P status have any relevance when the printing method is photomechanical.

Digital art, and “original digital print” are new categories that are causing major confusion and consternation, among collectors and artists as well as art fair and festival sponsors and convention artshows, as artists explore the boundaries of computer generated imagery.  In general, this is defined as artwork in which the original image, or the manipulation of other source material, was executed by the artist using the computer (“Ann Arbor Street Fair” rules) but the definition breaks down when traditional definitions of “originality” are applied to artworks created via computer technologies.  Hybrid images, sometimes politely called “mixed media”, that are the result of overpainting computer prints, or applications which simulate watercolors, surface texture of oils, have at times bordered on deception.  For one thing, while the image may be an artist’s independent creation, there is no tangible prototype – that from which copies and reproductions may be made.  Nor, as in traditional graphic arts processes, are there “master images” which – according to the standards for originality – must be distinguished from second edition or second state and requires destruction of the printing plate, stone, woodblock, screen.  In fact, one of the main objections from collectors is that the technology itself makes it difficult for the artist to know when to stop, tempting them to produce endless variations of their own works.

From a collecting standpoint, as well as a socio-cultural one, it is art created and produced by the artist themself that is revered.  Of course there are several other important factors that must be weighed in making the decision to buy art – and in my posts I talk about them.  And while we may deride reproductions as worthless, time and chance have a way of interfering with value – so I can’t predict worthlessness with certainty 😉  But if you are going to be smart about it, there is hardly a better question to ask, when you are considering a purchase of art, than whether the work is a reproduction or an original.

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