At Meural, we're driven by art democratization and transparency—and so we've developed a series at the intersection of art and commerce. Each installment provides an objective, accessible debriefing of a financial aspect of the art industry. Read more about the series' objective and what's to come.

James Turrell reviews printer's proofs made by printers at his publishing house, Pace Prints.

by Elinor Case-Pethica

In today’s day and age, it's routine for paintings and sculptures to sell for tens of millions of dollars. As a market we seem to accept these high prices, in part because of the idea that one is paying for a unique piece. The art market thrives off of this notion of singularity—it's not only the artwork as object that is sold, but the cultural and historical significance that it holds, the idea of having the sole transcript of the artist’s time and energy. 

Prints are by nature multiples, denying the notion of an original. Pricing a work in multiple is much more complicated than pricing an individual work. A number of factors come in to play to determine a print’s value, mostly relating to edition number and size.

Pieces by Andy Warhol up for auction at Bonhams. Warhol's prints have fetched some of the highest prices in the print market for contemporary works.

At its most basic, a print is a transferred image. The image is first created on a matrix, which could be anything from a carved block of wood to a drawing on a lithography stone. Prints are made from this matrix, but the matrix itself is not considered part of the artwork. A batch of prints created from a single matrix is referred to as an edition. The size of the edition, and the print’s number within that edition should be marked on each piece, like “3/15” or “56/250.” The smaller the size of the edition, the more valuable the print. In general, lower numbers within the print run are worth more than those from later within the edition, for instance 1/50 versus 45/50. This discrepancy comes from the idea that the printing matrix deteriorates over time during the printing process, thus the first prints pulled maintain the integrity of the image best. This may have some truth to it in the case of printing from etching plates—but even then, the damage that occurs during printing is minimal and takes place over the course of many thousands of printings. The point becomes further confused when one takes into account that the numbering that appears on the individual prints rarely reflects the order in which they were pulled. Most often, prints are left to dry in the racks in random order before being numbered. Thus the lower-number price bump is not based on assessment of quality, but is nonetheless an accepted standard in print appraisal: essentially, lower numbers are worth more than higher ones because of tradition. 

Typically, there are a few prints in excess of the numbered edition which are not included as part of the edition. These unnumbered prints show the progression of the work leading up to the finished edition. An artist’s proof is a draft pulled after the matrix is first made, to show the artist how the resulting print would look. This proof is either deemed acceptable to the printer, making it a bon à tirer (french for ‘good to print’) proof, or is deemed unacceptable, leading to further work on the matrix and further rounds of artist’s proofs. As a general rule, an artist’s proof is worth more than a numbered print from the same edition and will be marked with either A.P (artist’s proof), E. A (èpreuve d’artiste) or B.A.T. (bon à tirer). This is in part because they are rarer, more unique, and in some instances show the artist’s process and changes between draft version and finished edition.

KAWS releases are met with frenzies of consumer hype.

It is fairly common for artists (particularly those who work predominantly in a medium other than printmaking) to work through a print publisher. In these instances, the master printmakers at the publisher’s studio will present the artist with printer’s proofs to show progress on the development of the print. These one-offs are similarly more desirable than editioned prints, but less desirable than artist’s proofs. 

A phenomenon that occurs in the world of fine art prints is the hype surrounding certain print edition releases. An example would be the artist KAWS, who ‘drops’ new print editions fairly regularly, to a crowd who receives them much like sneaker or t-shirt releases. This hype drives up prices on prints in the primary market, but value rarely holds all the way through to re-sale.

In the world of multiples, the main factors to add value to a print are the things that set it apart from its fellows. Despite not being ‘original’ or unique, prints can run for impressive prices—the main things to look for in a print to ensure that it will hold or accumulate value are details of signage like edition size, number, and proof.