If art prints would be regarded by everybody as solely decorative objects of beauty, limited editions would not exist. But art prints can also become quite expensive if demand exceeds offer. Limited editions are meant to make an art print potentially rare by promising that not more than a certain amount of copies are produced, thus raising hopes among collectors that their purchase might turn into a profitable investment.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century art prints used to be published as open editions. As many copies were printed as could be sold. Printing and selling was often a process that covered several decades, sometimes even more than one century if the objects were for instance historical maps or famous prints like those by William Hogarth. The steel plates were real treasures and were often sold from one publisher to the next.
Western art prints in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were often copies of famous paintings. They were bought by people who could not afford to decorate their homes with original paintings. Other typical print subjects were views of towns or foreign countries which people bought out of curiosity for the unknown.
The best-known exsamples for open editions are Japanese woodblock prints made before world war II. The Japanese regarded the woodblock technique as a kind of copy machine that was only limited by the wearing-off of the blocks.
The number of copies that could be pulled from one block or plate depends on the printing technique. Woodblocks are good for maybe 5,000 to 10,000 copies until they are so much worn off that the impression quality is no longer acceptable. Wood engravings are by far more resistant. And printing methods based on steel plates allow practically an unlimited number of copies.
If a woodblock was worn off by too many impressions and demand for more copies was still existing, the publisher may have decided to have new blocks carved. In this case one speaks of a reproduction or re-cut. The Japanese use the word "fukkoku". Reproductions of woodblocks by famous Japanese artists have been made for instance for such great masters like Hiroshige, Utamaro or Hokusai.
The reproductions of famous Japanese ukiyo-e masters began towards the end of the 19th century. With a few exceptions they were not meant to deceive. They are often excellent and give art friends an opportunity to acquire a famous design otherwise no longer available or unattractive due to age or extremely expensive. But reproductions will hardly ever rise in value.
A limited edition print is simply a promise not to make more copies of an art print than announced at the time of the publication. This promise is underlined by numbering each print with a sequence number and the total edition size.
Nearly all limited editions are numbered in the same way - usually in the lower left corner of the print and outside the image. There you can find for instance 161/500. This example means that the copy you hold in your hands is the number 161 out of a total edition of 500.
Sounds good so far. Simple and pretty convincing for an art collector who wants to acquire a piece of art that has good chances of becoming rare, and thus more valuable and expensive in a few years from now. But it is not as simple as that. In reality more copies than the "promised" 500 may exist. Well, there are a bunch of exceptions.
First of all there is A.P. which stands for artist's proof. These are copies meant for the artist and one considers a number of 10% as normal. Instead of A.P. you can also find E.P. (épreuve d'artiste), which is French and the same as A.P.
Apart from A.P. or E.P. you may also find H.C. which stands for "hors de commerce" (not meant for sale). And then there may be a few more copies like printer's proof or publisher's proof.
You see there are usually more copies of an art print than the official number written in pencil on "your" copy.
A limited edition print is usually always signed. The other way around is however not true. You may find signed art prints from an open edition, for instance by contemporary Japanese printmaker Katsuyuki Nishijima.
The signature is usually on the right bottom corner outside the image. Most artists today also add the title of the print (middle) and the date or at least the year of publication or printing on the bottom margin. By the way, the artists write in pencil - for a very practical reason. Anything else like a pen would fade out sooner or later.
The reliability of the concept of limited editions depends in the end on what happens to the original block(s), respectively plates. In theory they have to be destroyed or made unusable with distinctive scratches over the surface. In practice in my humble opinion hardly any contemporary artist does it.
The reasons are manifold. First of all when an artist publishes a new design with a total edition of let's say 500, he can hardly ever sell the complete edition immediately. Therefore he prints in small steps according to demand. Otherwise he would have to keep a huge storage place for all his designs. Most artists do not have the space and means for this. And by storing print copies heaped up in piles, the prints may encounter a condition problem like for instance foxing.
Once an edition is sold out by the artist and he should receive requests by clients for more impressions, then the temptation is obvious to expand the original edition size by printing more and marking them as A.P. Most artists do so. Clever artists at least don't overdue it with the number of A.P. copies. After all, I think it is better for an artist to avoid it at all.
Japanese prints until roughly 1945 are collected as open editions. Nevertheless collectors pay sometimes several thousand dollars for a print from the 18th, 19th or the first half of the twentieth century. But what if the woodblocks do still exist and more impressions could be pulled?
As a general rule you can assume that the original blocks of prints from the 18th and 19th century do no longer exist or are no longer usable: Many were destroyed in the bombing raids of world war II.
However the situation is different for prints by shin hanga artists like Hasui Kawase or Tsuchiya Koitsu to name just two. The woodblocks are mostly in possession of the publishers like Watanabe Print Shop, and these blocks are often still in good shape.
Starting around 1980 publishers like Watanabe Print Shop began to pull out these original blocks from half-forgotten storage places and began to make new impressions. These late impressions are called Heisei Editions or atozuri.
Most of these later impressions are marked with Japanese characters or stamps in a way that they can be identified as such by an expert. But not all of them are, and not every collector of Japanese prints can read Japanese and understand the meaning of the text. Thus the nice little game of making guesses and needing experts starts again. And even experts often have to use their guts feelings (judging from the paper for instance) to evaluate when roughly an impression was actually pulled.
The whole mess of the open editions of Japanese prints becomes always so obvious to me when people send us e-mails requesting in which year a specific print offered by us in one of our online auctions was printed. I then try to make them understand that Japanese prints are unfortunately the opposite of an exact science.
Strangely enough the prices for early impressions of shin hanga art prints have in the end not suffered by these atozuri editions.
In some books written by art dealers you may read that A.P. impressions are more valuable than the regular numbered edition - because the A.P. copies are smaller in number. This is of course nonsense.
As a general rule I recommend the following:
Some recommend not to buy any A.P. or H.C. at all. Maybe they are right. But there may be valid exceptions. If the numbered edition is sold out and you really want to have a copy of this design, then it is OK in my view. And of course, if you do not speculate for making a good investment but just want this print because you like it, this is perfectly OK. Buying an art print because you like it, is in my view the best reason for buying art anyway.
Last but not least, allow me one of my "nasty" remarks. It is meant as a general tip for art buyers.
"Whenever art professionals use abbreviations and/or words from a foreign language that most people do not understand like French or Latin in catalogs, books or exhibition announcements, they usually want to hide something. Regard it with suspicion. Keep your common sense and don't get impressed by arrogant behavior or a plush environment. After all, it is YOUR money that they want."
Author: Dieter Wanczura