centerlogobigAAD logo


In today's art market, the consumer can be duped by a lack of knowledge about the difference between a unique work of art, limited edition prints, and digital pigment prints, "giclees" or other photographic reproductions. This is the first of a series of blogs which should demystify some of the confusion. We would like art lovers to enjoy purchasing art because they understand what they are buying and whether the price fits.

Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay of 1936, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," wrote about authenticity and how advances in technology were threatening to erode the aura of the original work of art. He argued that adulation of new mechanical developments in industry and the consequent ability to reach out to more and more people had surpassed interest in hand made work. Benjamin went on to say that a copy of an original work of art could never achieve the authenticity of the original itself, no matter how exact it was, because it wasn't created with the same "Zeitgeist," a German noun (therefore capitalized) literally translated as time/spirit and meaning the unique orientation of all people living in a particular time period and culture. Of course, the copies he was considering weren't as accurate as they are today.

Times have changed. Reproduction has been refined with the use of photographic techniques. We are inundated with imagery. Reproductions of master works of art are everywhere from museum pamphlets to Pinterest. An amazing vehicle for communication, connection, and research, the internet is increasingly more visual, with images posted easily and everywhere. There are originals, which are unique, and multiple originals, which are original, just not unique. And some "limited edition prints" aren't limited at all. The current situation is much more complicated than Walter Benjamin could possibly have imagined.

When Carter Brown was the Director of the National Gallery in Washington DC, he coined the term, "multiple originals," to describe prints from finite editions. He was concerned about the confusion between these prints and those being produced by photographic techniques in huge editions of 1500 or 675 and run off on printing presses that people were calling "limited edition" prints when they weren't limited at all. Sometimes, artists sign and number all of 1500 photographic reproductions in pencil to try to lend some credibility to the "limited" nature of the edition.

Unfortunately, Brown's term never caught on, but it clarified that a real limited edition print is a handmade original but also not unique, therefore a multiple.

Contemporary limited edition prints, Brown's multiple originals, are made in small editions and created by an artist working with a master printer who can best recommend which of the many media available suits the artist's conception. Artists need to work with a master printer who understands how to employ all of the different techniques needed to communicate what the artist wants.

We need to distinguish between copies, limited edition prints and originals because of considerable value differences and consequent price variations. The aura of the original still exists today; the unique handmade work of art is considered to be much more valuable than its copies. It's a question of supply and demand: the more copies of an original work of art, the lower the value of each reproduction. Logical.

But it gets more complicated.