What to Know When Buying Limited Editions

Artsy Specialist
Oct 10, 2018 6:39PM

When you discover a print or photograph that you want to buy, the next step is to look at the artwork’s edition information. These details will help you understand the lasting value of your artwork and can even provide insights into the artist’s market.

You can find edition information listed on the artwork’s page on Artsy—and you can always contact the gallery or auction house for further context. Here’s what you need to know.

The Size of an Edition Never Changes

Techniques such as photography, printmaking, and cast sculpture enable artists to create multiple versions of the same work. While these artworks are not unique, they are still considered original artworks—and can be as important to artists as their one-of-a-kind pieces.

With limited editions, artists restrict the total amount of artworks produced in the edition, so that each individual work will retain its value over time. Printers and artists often destroy the materials that they use to create these works—whether that be printing plates or photographic negatives—to make sure that it is impossible to add to the edition later on.

Pro tip: When discussing an edition with a gallery or auction house, you may want to confirm that the artwork you are buying is from a first edition. In rare cases, artists, galleries, or artist estates will decide to extend a limited edition—and they will label these subsequent editions as a second edition, third edition, and so forth. If the edition is created after the artist’s death, it will be called a posthumous edition. Because these artworks are farther from the artist’s original intention, they will be less valuable when compared to those from the first edition.

Every Artwork in the Edition Is Identical

William Wegman
Eames Low , 2015
Marc Selwyn Fine Art
William Wegman
Eames Low (Edition 6/7), 2015
Patrick De Brock Gallery

Each and every artwork in a limited edition should look exactly the same. If one artwork is significantly different from the rest, then it should not be included in the standard edition.

To distinguish between individual artworks in an edition, artists will label each piece with a distinct number—and you will often find this number published alongside the total edition size (e.g. 1/30 or 30/30). A common misconception is that editions are numbered in the order that they are printed. This is rarely the case, as artists will often number their works at random when they are signing and dating them.

For this reason, the number of a print—whether that be 1/30 or 30/30—will typically have no effect on its resale value.

Pro tip: When galleries sell limited editioned artworks for the first time, they often sell them in number order. If there is a lot of demand for the edition, galleries may choose to raise the price of the remaining unsold works. In these cases, the print numbered 30/30 will be more expensive than the print numbered 1/30—simply because it was the last to be sold.

Smaller Editions Are More Valuable

When edition sizes are small, the individual artworks in the edition become more rare—and this scarcity makes these pieces more desirable in the market. For example, a print by Frank Stella from an edition of 30 will be more valuable than a similar work from an edition of 100.

The size of an edition can range considerably depending on the physical limitations of the artist’s technique as well as collector demand for the artist’s work. For example, etchings made with printmaking techniques such as drypoint or aquatint typically come in small editions, due to the fragility of the printmaking process. On the other hand, durable methods like screen printing, lithography, and cast metal sculpture enable artists to produce much larger edition sizes.

Pro tip: Prints, photographs, or sculptures with edition sizes that are greater than 200 are often considered to be “multiples” or “reproductions,” rather than “fine art.” When editions are this large, it is nearly impossible for the artist to be involved in the production and approval of each individual work—and this distance lowers the value of the artworks in the series.

Proofs Add to the Edition Size

David Hockney
Celia, 1969
Sims Reed Gallery
David Hockney
Celia, 1969
Alan Cristea Gallery

Most limited editions will also include a small number of artist’s proofs, which are often listed as “AP” or “A/P” in the edition information. Other types of proofs—such as RTP or BAT proofs (customarily the printer’s guide for producing the edition) or printer’s proofs (given to the second master printer working on an edition)—are less common.

Traditionally, artists kept these proofs for their personal collections—and artworks that belonged to the artists themselves will be more valuable in today’s market. Proofs are also highly desirable if they are in some way unique, such as those that feature notes from the artist.

Pro tip: Artist’s proofs should account for no more than 10% of the edition size. For example, if you find a limited edition of 30 pieces, you can expect there to be three artist’s proofs or fewer available for purchase. When the number of artist’s proofs exceed this 10% threshold, it can call into question the overall value or integrity of the edition.

When you are making your purchasing decisions, you can always ask the gallery or auction house to provide additional information about an artwork’s edition size. If you have questions about buying limited editioned artworks through Artsy, you can also contact our team of specialists at [email protected].

Artsy Specialist