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Fine Art Prints vs. Reproductions

By Noelle DeSantis and Sarah Kirk Hanley 

Have you ever wondered why two seemingly identical prints by the same artist can have vastly different price tags? Among numerous factors, it is often the manner in which the print was produced that plays the most pivotal role in determining its value.

In order to illustrate the differences, let’s examine how the iconic image “Eric” from American artist Robert Longo’s dynamic series “Men in the Cities” might be produced with different printing methods that significantly impact the ultimate value of each type of print.

Reproduction Prints

As the name suggests, reproduction prints are exactly that—machine-produced copies of artwork, not original works of art. The artist is usually not involved at all – or if so, minimally – and they can be either authorized or unauthorized reproductions. These copies are often produced in large quantities and often include posters, open-edition prints, and other mass-produced reproductions. While they can be aesthetically pleasing and affordable, they generally have little value in the art market. For instance, a new reproduction print of Longo’s “Eric” is available online for prices ranging from $25 to about $100.

These types of copies can also be reproduced in limited-editions of restricted quantities, with a specific number made. Sometimes the artist has some involvement, such as approving a final pre-production proof for color matching or other considerations before the edition is printed. The value of a poster can increase if it’s a limited-edition poster from an exhibition or if it’s associated with a famous event, movie, or artist. For example, a vintage limited-edition poster of “Eric” from an exhibition in 1986 is currently retailing for $750 online. Furthermore, a limited-edition poster that is hand signed by the artist can fetch a significantly higher price due to its rarity, such as a signed example from a benefit in 1991 that is available online for $4,950.

Limited-Edition Fine Art Prints: Original Works of Art Counter to mass produced prints, limited-edition fine art prints are original works of art produced with direct involvement of the artist. The image is not a copy of a work; instead, it is a completely original image – or an artist-generated variant of another image they produced that does not exist in another format. The artist works directly in a chosen method that can include any combination of intaglio, relief, planographic, stencil, or digital techniques.

Any artist can create, print and publish their own work, but in the case of some important fine artists like Longo, a publisher invites them to create an edition of prints. In this instance, the artist works with an expert printer to realize the edition and is directly involved with final appearance, choices of ink color and paper. When the printing of an edition is complete, the artist reviews each print or “impression” for printing quality and similarity. If the print does not meet the artist’s criteria, it is destroyed.

If the print meets with the artist’s standards, they are hand-signed in pencil and numbered in the form of a fraction. The top number represents the individual print number and the bottom number indicates the total number of prints in the edition. A small number are set aside for the artist, publisher, and printer, marked “AP” for artist proof, “HC” for hors commerce, and “PP” for printers proof; these are also usually numbered. The presence of the number is a unique identifier, but all prints in an edition have the same value at the time it is released for sale by the publisher.

Although each print from the same edition is initially sold for the same price, over time values can differ greatly on the secondary market depending on demand, rarity, condition, provenance and many other nuanced factors. Having sold for only a few thousand dollars in the 1980s and 1990s, Longo’s images still resonate with today’s viewers and can achieve significant prices. In 2022, Sotheby’s sold an “Eric” lithograph numbered 35/38 from an early edition published in 1984 for over $56,000.

Proofs or “test prints” made during the creative process can be marked as a state proof, a working proof, a progressive proof, or a trial proof. Sometimes, usually much later after the main edition is sold out, these types of proofs surface on the market. Although proofs might differ from the main edition and can include artist annotations, some collectors appreciate these differences and collect them specifically for these reasons. In some instances proofs can sell as high as main edition prints. Take for example the working proof of “Eric” with artist’s annotations that recently sold at Rago auctions in February 2024 for $47,880 including the buyer’s premium.

Other Original Artwork

Valuing other types of original works of art like paintings and drawings is a discussion for another time. However, to further illustrate the significant price differences from posters to limited-edition fine art prints to one-of-a-kind artworks, consider Longo’s small graphite drawing of “Eric” in a slightly different pose that sold at Christie’s in May 2023 for over $440,000—several times more than his life-size limited-edition lithographs and a leap into a different stratosphere compared to the affordability of a poster or reproduction print of the same image.

When to Call in the Experts Collecting limited-edition prints can be a complex endeavor due to all the various factors involved in their valuation, including artist, rarity, colors, print type, condition, and provenance.

Notably, not all limited-edition prints have significant value- as artists of all types and abilities create limited-edition prints.

Conversely, not all limited-edition prints of significant value bear the artist’s signature or edition number. For instance, some of Pablo Picasso’s limited-edition prints lack his signature and numbering, yet still command substantial values, often reaching tens of thousands of dollars. This is because they are recognized to be authentic examples produced under his watch, but the artist never got around to signing them. Likewise, the idea of signing and numbering prints did not evolve until the late nineteenth century, so no prints produced before then are signed. With artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya, no signature should be present.

How to tell the difference between a mass-produced reproduction and an authentic print edition authorized by the artist? That is where specialists come in who have extensive training to know the differences between various print techniques and papers, of which there are thousands, and correlating that to the known information about the edition as published in reliable resources.

In short, when assembling your fine art collection of prints, it’s crucial to purchase from reputable art dealers and auction houses, as well as seek guidance from fine art appraisal firms such as Art Peritus.

Sarah Kirk Hanley, AAA is an independent critic, curator, advisor, and appraiser for fine art prints, editions, and illustrated artists’ books. She serves as an expert consultant for several art appraisal, art advisory, and nonprofit arts organizations in New York and is currently working on a legacy project for the American artist Robert Kipniss.

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From passion assets to planned giving does estate planning affect the growth and development of a collection?

The Art of Collecting

A variety of factors drive collectors to collect. Perhaps its investment, notoriety or by inheritance. Regardless of if they are collecting art, wine, jewelry, baseball cards or vintage autos, arguably the greatest force behind any serious collector is their passion.

At least, at first.

As collectors build their collections, they inevitably discover more about the items they are seeking, and their interests deepen and evolve. They may focus on specific genres, eras, or artists, creating a collection with a certain theme or meaning, or they may broaden their scope to incorporate greater variety to reflect their personality or lifestyle.

There is no “right way” to collect. However, there are a myriad of reasons why a collector should think about what will happen to their collection once they are gone.

An Investment in the Future

For many collectors, a high-value collection represents a joyful investment in the future. While appraisal values may rise and fall with the tide of fluid markets, those who collect passion assets are still able to appreciate and enjoy their investments throughout their lives while remaining confident that it will provide a valuable and worthy legacy to leave behind.

But the problem with passion is that it’s hard to pass on. The same is true with one’s passion assets.

Even in close-knit families where collecting is embraced generation after generation, it is easy to understand how heirs may not share the same tastes or interests for collected items. Inheriting a valuable collection is simply not the same as assembling it yourself, and minus the passion for the collection, its value defaults to its appraised market value.

This is why it is so essential for collectors to engage in estate planning as early as possible.

Leaving a Legacy

Although a collector, especially one that is young, may be loath to begin thinking about their inevitable passing, it is crucial that they consider the ultimate fate of their collection well in advance.

Not only does it help facilitate the bequest of the valuable items they’ve collected, but it may also help guide them in the growth and development of their collection.

For example, if a collector has multiple heirs, they may not wish to “break up” their collection by distributing its parts to different beneficiaries. And even if they do, they may find it impossible to do so equitably, due to the variance in value of some pieces. If the bulk of the value in a collection is held within one or two pieces, how can it be evenly (and amicably!) distributed between three heirs?

Having no estate plan in place is easily the worst scenario. In this situation, a collection is likely to fall under the control of an executor who may choose to liquidate the collection altogether to allow for an equitable distribution of assets. Selling a collection at auction in the interests of expediency could very well minimize the exit value of many objects. Further, sales of tangible assets will be subject to capital gains taxes at a rate of 28%, whereas items bequeathed directly to heirs will not trigger estate taxes (unless they turn around and sell them).

Planned Giving

Perhaps a collector knows a single piece, or their entire collection would be appreciated by a broader audience. Maybe they have a strong relationship with an institution with the same subject matter focus or that is committed to their same philanthropic values. Having invested much time and capital in obtaining their assets of passion, the consideration of donation and Planned Giving is an important one.

Any major gift can be an effective way of not only circumventing capital gains and estate taxes, but it may also entitle the estate to claim a charitable tax deduction. However, there are limitations to this process.

For example, a collection must be donated to a public charity that will use the items for non-commercial purposes, rather than to a private foundation. This can be problematic in that the terms of the donation may be more difficult to negotiate with a public entity than with a private foundation, especially if it is a foundation set up to administer the collection.

If the desire is to make one’s collection available for the public to enjoy, strict conditions must be placed on the collection to ensure that it remains intact and outlines what can and cannot be done with it in perpetuity.

The Advisory Advantage

In addition to consulting with a financial planner, collectors can avoid many of the pitfalls of passing on their passion assets with the aid of an art advisor who has expertise and experience navigating this kind of conversation. Collectors will inevitably need to have their tangible assets professionally appraised for both insurance and tax purposes. This is when consulting with a team like Art Peritus provides invaluable insight and can help direct collectors in the best way to grow, protect, and maintain their collection for both posterity and financial value.

An experienced consultant for example, may identify certain niche collecting markets that can encapsulate a collection, giving it form and shape for future acquisitions. This type of advisory relationship can help the collector continue to develop their collection in such a way that stays engaging, desirable and true to the passion that inspired them in the first place, whether it is ultimately sold or donated to charity.

An Art Consultant may even help forge connections with viable charities, and otherwise lay the groundwork for legacy giving that will protect the collection and its value once the collector is gone. It is estimated that art and passion asset collectibles comprise around 10% of the net worth of individuals worth $30M or more. Globally, that amounts to more than $3 trillion in privately held assets, nearly all of which have a value determined solely by market conditions.

Collecting passion assets may well begin as a fervent personal pursuit, but what happens to those assets in the end is something collectors truly need to consider, because it will likely affect the development of the collection itself.

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