The situation gets more complicated. How can you know how many versions of the same image are on the market to evaluate the asking price?
In the 19th century and in the early 20th century, the standard illustrations for books were actually hand made etchings, engravings or lithographs, made by an artist and printed by a printing press. No one cared how many there were of a particular image. Prints were run as needed with no numbers attached. When the book wasn't bound, the illustrations were printed just as engravings, lithographs and etchings are printed today, one at a time. Many of these illustrations are available on the market.
If the engraving, etching or lithograph was a copy of a painting, the artist signed the print, sometimes on the plate, sometimes in pencil if he was just printing a few of them. However, the engraver gave the artist of the original painting credit by stating on the lower left, the artist's name "pinxit" (painted) or delineat (drew), and on the lower right, his own name and "sculpsit" (carved, or engraved).
If you are considering the purchase of a print from the 19th or the first half of the 20th century, often there is no edition size listed. In the description, it will say something like "edition size unknown" or "no stated edition." You can have no idea how many other identical images are available because no one ever counted.
Often, what determines the value of an old print is its condition, so you will see an assessment of the margins or a stain on the paper included in the description, if the print is being sold by a trustworthy seller. And when you buy an old print, you want to keep the paper in good condition by framing it with archival materials and by hanging it away from direct light. Your print can increase in value if its condition is maintained, especially if all of the other identical images are not in as good condition as yours.
The catalogue reference is important too. If the artist was famous, often someone has written a book listing all of the known prints by that artist, usually with illustrations. If the print you are considering for purchase is listed, it has more value.
With contemporary prints, the situation is in many ways clearer and in many ways more confusing because of the explosion of excellent copies. As we said in Part I, reproduction has been refined with the use of photographic techniques, and it is often difficult to tell if you are buying a photographic copy, like a giclee, or a limited edition print that was made by the artist himself.
The Lichtenstein below was printed in an edition of 60, and is signed and numbered by the artist in pencil at the lower right on the front of the paper. Usually a pencil signature means that the artist approves of the image and is taking ownership for its creation. However, in some cases today, the artist is taking ownership for a run of reproductions off a printing press, which are copies of his original work, sometimes signing and numbering 1500 or more. Pencil signature is not always an indication that the print was personally made by the artist.
Back to this wonderful limited edition print by Roy Lichtenstein. Since there are 60 woodcut/screenprints from this edition, this print is a multiple and valued at a lower price than his unique paintings. But it is a true limited edition print from a finite edition, made by the artist working with a master printer, so it is original work by the artist, even though he makes fun of that by including a copy of one of his other prints. The price for one of the 60 in the edition has grown considerably since it was printed in 1991, because it was made by the famous artist himself. And, of course, all of his work is more valuable now that he is deceased because there is a finite amount of original work available by him.
The aura of the original is still respected and valued: the fewer images there are of a work of art, the more value, especially if the work is in good condition. Logical.
However, there is more to understand.