Limited edition prints are a standard medium for art, but no school of art has made them its own as much as Northwest Coast art. One reason, I think, is that they were popularized in the 1960s by such leading artists as Robert Davidson. Another reason is that limited prints bridge the gap in price between fine art and tourist curios, with the majority selling for under $400 and many for under $200, and therefore can provide a steady income to printmakers. For buyers, they are a step up from buying a reproduction – although you need to know a bit about prints if you are going to buy sensibly.
The first thing you should know before buying a print is how it was made. The highest quality prints are lithographs or serigraphs (silk screens), but increasingly you find giclee prints, or prints run off a computer via a high-end ink jet printer. Some artists and galleries refuse to handle giclee prints, citing poor quality examples, but their cheapness and the fact that artists can print them on demand mean that giclee prints are increasingly popular. Still, if you do buy one, look closely at how the ink sticks to the paper. If the ink seems loose, or riding above the paper, then your giclee print may have a very short lifespan compared to one made by other methods.
Many people buy a print for the art. However, if you think that you might sell the print someday, notice the print run, which is usually penciled in beside the artist’s name and the title of the print. Forty years ago, print runs of 500 or even 600 were common in Northwest Coast art, but now, a counterfeiting scandal or two later, the norm is now under 200. Private editions, such as those released for an artist’s wedding, may number 25 or less. As a general rule, the lower the number of prints in the edition, the more valuable each print will be in theory.
In practice, however, the number of prints in the run is not always a reliable guide to value. Especially with giclee prints, an artist may not produce the full number of prints in the edition if they are not selling. And, even with traditional prints, some may be spoiled or destroyed, especially as the years go by. Conversely, an artist may deliberately withhold prints from the market in hopes of artificially creating a demand. Unless you know something about a limited edition, it is almost impossible to know how many are actually in circulation. Understandably, artists and galleries are sometimes reluctant to talk about such matters.
For the same reason, buying a print with a low number, such as 1/200 does not always result in a more valuable print. If you later resell a lower numbered print – or a collection of prints with the same number on each print – you may actually get a price that is higher than usual, but the increased value is entirely in the eyes of the buyer.
Similarly, Artist Proofs (AP)are often sold for more than a standard print – often for up to twice the price of an ordinary print. Artist Proofs are supposed to be copies run during printing to check the quality of reproduction. However, today, Artist Proofs are just as likely to be five prints – possibly the first five – run off and labeled as Artist Proofs. Except for their designation, Artist Proofs are unlikely to differ in any way from other prints in the run.
Another way that a print can increase in value is if it is a Remarque (RM). A Remarque is an addition to the print, often hand-drawn, by the artist themselves. A Remarque is usually a small doodle, but it can almost be a substantial edition to the print. Either way, a remarque print often goes for twice the price of other prints.
Still another way to give a print added value is a personal message from the artist. However, such prints rarely come on the market.
However, unless you are a serious collector, worrying about Artist Proofs, Remarques, or personal messages is rarely worth your while unless the artist is well-known, and the print is already about $400. Most prints will only rise slightly in value in two or three decades, regardless of their embellishments.Only a few artists, such as Susan Point or Robert Davidson, release prints that quickly rise in value, and the value of their works rests mostly on the consensus that their work is collectible.
With most prints, therefore, you should probably not think of added value at all. Instead, buy what pleases you. That should be your first criterion anyway — not the return on your investment.