Seaside Art Gallery: How are Art Editions Numbered?

How many are there? Is one of the most common questions concerning etchings, woodcuts and other graphic art. Prior to the end of the 19th Century, the concept of an edition size or keeping track of the number of impressions did not exist. So no one knows how many etchings Rembrandt, Durer or Whistler printed. If they had a customer for a work of art, they printed one. The wood or metal would also start to break down during the printing process, so this also limited the number of pieces. You can only guess at the rarity of the art by how frequently you see it in the market place.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, about the same time that artists started to hand sign their prints, the concept of an edition started to emerge. Artist started to limit the edition in order to assure the public of the quality of each piece and to declare the rarity of the art. In the beginning, there was no formal or accepted way of numbers. Some artists would just write the next number in a sequence but this does not give an edition size. Others would note the total size of the edition without sequence numbers. Finally an accepted notation of numbering emerged; the sequence number is first then a slash with the edition number below. Before and sometimes during the printing of the edition, the artist will pull a small number of impressions in order to view the quality of the printing. If these impressions are of the same quality as the edition, then the artist signs them and designates these impressions as an artist proof. There is no difference in the value or quality of an artist proof and the edition. Epreuve d’Artiste is the French notation for artist proof. Hors de Commerce means apart from the commercial edition and usually indicates that the print was given to a dealer or friend without the artist receiving compensation. Again, there is no difference in value when these make their way to the market place.

That being said, there are artists and dealers that will charge more for lower numbers or artist proofs. The idea that supports this is that the first prints are better in quality since the plate has not started to wear down. This idea only works if you know for sure that the artist actually numbers the edition in the exact order that he pulls them. I know one artist that numbers his entire edition as A/P. This valuation theory does not survive in the secondary market where the quality and condition of the art takes priority.

Melanie Smith

Melanie is the co-owner of Seaside Art Gallery, Nags Head, NC which specializes in original fine art. The gallery was founded in 1961 by her parents and she has grown up in the world of art. She has organized numerous art shows, acted as an art judge and is an accredited fine art and animation art appraiser with the International Society of Appraisers.

Seaside Art Gallery on Ruby Lane:

Seaside Art Gallery
PO Box 1
2716 So Virginia Dare Trail
Nags Head, NC 27959


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