How can you tell if the picture you are considering for purchase is a mechanically generated copy, whether digital or photographic, or a hand printed, limited edition print? What about the value of the original that has been reproduced? Let's look deeper.
Today's artists, with the blessing of US copyright law, create copies of their own work using mechanical methods of reproduction to create notecards, tiles, and giclees. "Giclee" is a digital technique that produces an exact copy of a work of art, which can be printed on canvas or paper in any size the customer wants. Some giclees even include the three-dimensional illusion of brushwork, which can really confuse someone trying to buy an oil painting on canvas. This is a problem.
Graphic Matter in Belgium just made an edition called The Prints of Paul Klee, published with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the description of the edition, Graphic Matter is careful to make it understood that the edition consists of 500 copies of 40 of Klees prints, dating from 1903 - 1931, in a green linen box with black ribbon. Each set is offered at a pretty good price for nice copies. Graphic Matter's Peter Ruyffelaerre is honest about what he is selling, and he has priced the edition affordably.
A well-known Detroit artist created the screenprint (left), working with a master printer. Although one of her watercolors was the idea for this print, she drew by hand each of the 21 color separations to make the print, which was then hand printed by the printer in an edition of 71. They worked together to figure out which colors to use to create the effect the artist envisioned. Only 71 prints were created, all numbered and signed by the artist in pencil. Since there are 71 prints of the same image, the price is lower than for her watercolor of this same view, which is a unique work. But each print of the 71 is an original work of art because the artist and the printer made them by hand. It is a multiple because there are 71 images, so it is called a limited edition print.
The edition of 71 is numbered and finite, so buyers know exactly what they are getting. The number of works in the edition and the number of the work within that edition are documented on the print by the artist in pencil with a fraction such as 3/71 or 50/71 next to her signature. A buyer can go online and search for current prices for that edition and see if the asking price is fair. When the medium is screenprinting, there is no appreciable difference between the first print made, usually 1/71 and the last. The color separations don't break down in an edition of 71, and each print is made individually, so there is no difference in price within the edition.
This same artist explained why she approved the creation of giclees of her paintings:
"I got drawn into giclees when a printer asked to use our artwork for samples of giclees, both on paper and canvas, giving us some free prints in exchange. Our daughter's mother-in-law had wanted to buy one of my oils that I didn't want to part with, so we were all happy when she accepted and nicely framed the giclee on canvas.
I've sold a couple of oil paintings to a new hospital building... and then the art consultants... asked for inexpensive art work for a clinic related to the hospital. So I had giclees made up from some recent watercolors, which helped us all out."
So the artist sold giclees to an art consultant, who understood the difference between a giclee and an original painting. And the clinic was happy to hang images on its walls that weren't original or unique because the price was right. No copyright infringement has happened because the copies were made with the artist's permission. Honesty prevailed in this transaction. This is what should happen and does if you purchase art from a reputable source.
What gets interesting here is that there are 71 of the screenprints and only 3 giclees. By the logic of supply and demand, the price should be higher for one of the giclees than for one of the edition of 71. But a buyer can't count on this logic with giclees because more giclees can be made of the artist's paintings, by the artist as long as the artist retains the copyright for the original. An artist could choose to number the giclees and print a stated, finite number to stabilize the price point. In this case, she did not, but she is a woman of great integrity and will undoubtedly reveal whatever she does in the future to all concerned parties, just as she has demonstrated with the clinic. Under the (US) law, unless she sells the copyright with the original, she can do as she pleases and is not obligated to tell the owners of the giclees that they are actually part of an edition of more than 3 images. In this case, the clinic has already made it clear that they don't care about uniqueness because they were able to purchase nice looking images for a good price.
However, at some future time, someone, ignorant of this transaction because of a lapse of time or a change in management, could think the clinic's pictures are original Nawaras and put them up for sale for a much higher price than they deserve. Since the giclees are printed on canvas, they look amazingly like original paintings on canvas, and the canvas is the same age as an original Nawara would be painted on.
This is a problem. In the case of the edition of Klee copies, buyers are told that they are purchasing copies of prints, some over one hundred years old, but the paper is twenty- first century paper, so there is less chance of future confusion.
There is another problem. There was a definitive court decision, Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp, where it was decided that exact copies of public domain images are not protected by (US) copyright law because the copies lack originality. We're back to Walter Benjamin again. The aura of the original is still upheld. When you purchase a giclee, either the artist could generate more copies or anyone else can copy a copy.
When I asked Lucille Nawara if she thought that the original had lost its luster by being copied, she said:
"Our estate attorney accepted, as a trade for 2/3 of our new estate plans, one of the original watercolors, already framed. Again, everyone was happy. I told him that I had made up 3 giclees of that same watercolor, and he didn't find that a problem."
So the artist was honest with the owner of the original, informing him that she had made giclees of his original watercolor. Because she is trustworthy, it is not likely that she will exercise her right to print more giclees from the lawyer's original painting.
There are many reasons why "Buyer Beware," if someone wants to sell you a giclee. As you evaluate the price of the image, you need to find out a few things. You need to ask who owns the copyright for the original. You need to find out how many giclees have been made of the image, and if any copies are in the public domain, which is probably not possible.
And you need to decide if you are more interested in owning the image, albeit a copy, and perhaps one of many, or interested in owning an original, albeit a multiple, with its potential long term growth in value, a potential that is possible with a limited edition print.