Henri-Edmond CrossThe Promenade (Landscape with Cypresses), 1897, Color lithograph on chine collé. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Limited edition prints are often the first entry point into the field of fine art collecting.

Limited edition prints are an excellent and—usually—affordable way to begin collecting art. It’s possible to acquire a limited edition print by a well-known artist for a fraction of their typical price, since these pieces are multiples and therefore less expensive than unique works.

Still, prints can range dramatically in price—and perfectly preserved prints by historically established artists can be valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, a set of ten prints from 1967 by Andy Warhol depicting Marilyn Monroe recently sold at auction for over $3million.

There are many places to acquire museum-quality prints. Auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, Bonhams and Swann all sell prints. Certain galleries are devoted to prints alone, including Pace Prints, the print-dealing arm of “mega gallery” Pace. There are also printmaking studios that effectively double as galleries, have represented artist rosters, and participate in art fairs. Some well-known studios include Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, Kayrock Screenprinting in Long Island City, New York, and Durham Press, which is located in a historic schoolhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the most comprehensive way to gain a broad overview of vetted limited edition print dealers would be to attend the International Fine Art Print Fair, which was established by the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA). Founded in 1987, the IFPDA "is known as the authority on fine art prints...With more than 150 members in thirteen countries, members of the IFPDA reflect a worldwide community of expert art dealers from old master to contemporary as well as publishers of editions by internationally renowned contemporary artists," according to the fair's website. Furthermore, the IFPDA hosts online programming, awards artist grants and prizes, "fosters knowledge and stimulates discussion about collecting prints in the public sphere and the global art community."

Artists often create prints with a certain studio of their choice numerous times over many years. Select printmaking studios are considered very prestigious and highly sought-after, which can ultimately increase the value of a print published by them, as opposed to other, lesser-known studios. Artists will also often create prints for nonprofits they support as a means of fundraising, which means that acquiring these prints can also benefit the cultural institution in question. One example is New York City’s Lincoln Center, which has maintained a long-standing limited edition print collaboration with renowned artists known as Lincoln Center Editions.

Here’s a brief overview of what you need to know when starting to collect limited edition prints.

Left: Albrecht Dürer, Third Knot, Date unknown (16th century), Woodcut, Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Right: Henri Charles Guérard, The Rabbits, 1893, Woodcut, Sheet: 59.5 x 42.2 cm (23 7/16 x 16 5/8 in.); Image: 33 x 23.1 cm (13 x 9 1/8 in.), Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

There are many different types of limited edition prints.

Prints have a storied and ancient history, dating as far back as 200 AD, when woodblock prints were first created in Asia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a comprehensive chronology of Western printing technology beginning in the 1400s on their website. Woodcuts, etchings, aquatints, screenprints and lithographs are some of the best known types of prints. Christie’s Auction House does an excellent job of explaining the techniques involved in the most popular types of prints and providing examples created by famous artists.

Artists may employ printing techniques in tandem with other materials and processes to create a unique work of art, but those pieces would not be considered a multiple. The artist Swoon often uses woodblock printing techniques in her installations and assemblages, for example, which are actually one-off mixed-media pieces.

Digital techniques have also been introduced into the commercial art arena as a means of creating multiples from a unique work, which can be sold at more affordable prices. Digital prints are typically created either by generating a computer-based image, or by scanning an original artwork, such as a painting, to produce a high resolution digital file. Such prints are generally referred to as giclees. To learn more about giclee prints, read this article.

While digital prints do not require the same type of craftsmanship as traditional etchings, or other hand-made prints, they are becoming increasingly popular as a way for artists to create works that can be collected by a wider audience due to their lower price points. Some art historical “purists” might argue that, due to their digital nature, giclee prints are less “artistic” than more historical print types, but that argument can be compared to digital vs analog photography. While analog photography certainly requires more hands-on knowledge, digital photography has long been embraced by artists to broaden their creative practice.

Left: Käthe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1934, Lithograph, edition 76/80. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Right: Jane Loudon, Belladonna Lily: Amaryllis belladonna, Date unknown, Lithograph. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The signature matters and should include the edition’s number within the set.

Limited edition prints should be numbered, signed and dated by the artist. It does not really make a difference what number you acquire within the edition set. Edition 1/100 is, in theory, exactly the same as edition 64/100 and should not be valued any differently. 

That being said, sometimes the price of the edition will increase as the edition sells out and becomes less available. However, this sales technique only affects the price on the primary market and does not increase the value of the print on the secondary market, should you ever choose to resell it at auction or through a gallery.

An edition from a set of 5 will typically be more valuable in the long run than an edition from a set of 100 by the same artist. Generally speaking—the greater the number of editions within the set, the lower the price of each individual edition. This is simply due to the scarcity of the print. A print from a set of 5 is obviously much rarer than a print from a set of 500 and therefore more valuable, in theory. An edition that is “open” and therefore has no set limit will be the least valuable over time in terms of the secondary market.

There are other nomenclatures such as AP (artist’s proof), PP (printer’s proof), and TP (test proof). Printer’s proofs and test proofs might have some minor differences from the rest of the edition, which can work in the collector’s favor, or against. APs can be sought-after because these prints are generally reserved for the artist to either keep for themselves, donate to a museum, or gift to another artist, etc. 

If the print you want to buy is not signed by the artist at all, and they are still alive, inquire about receiving a COA signed by the artist. Some artists might choose not to sign their works on the front of the print, as it can detract from the aesthetic experience of the composition. Artists might also choose not to sign on the reverse of the print, as certain papers might not be thick enough to obscure that signature. 

Finally, some artists might choose to only initial their prints; but, if the print is totally unsigned, it’s acceptable to inquire with the seller if a certificate of authenticity could be issued to accompany the work. The artist could also sign a “signature label,” which can then be affixed to the reverse of the frame. That signature label, and/or COA should also be numbered and dated. 

It’s important to frame limited edition prints professionally to preserve them.

Prints can be created with all different types of paper, or even canvas and other materials, some more easily conserved than others. Paper is a highly delicate medium that can easily crease, wrinkle and tear. The best practice is always to have limited edition prints framed professionally, under museum-quality UV plexi or glass glazing. 

Glass is more fragile than plexi, of course, so that should be considered when choosing how to frame a print. If the glass breaks, it can destroy the print. Glass is also much heavier than plexi. When choosing how to frame a print, it is best to consider the context in which the work will be installed. Speak to your local framer and work with them to determine the best method with which to frame your print. 

You can generally either matt the print, or mount it. Mounting a print can create issues in the long-run, if the print is large-scale and therefore heavy—it could ultimately “fall off” the mounting hinges, which typically consist of archival tape. These variables should all be discussed prior to choosing the best frame for the print.

Never trim a print to fit a frame. It is imperative that the entire piece of paper used in the original print is preserved exactly as is. When auction houses catalog prints and write condition reports, they will note the size of the print image, the size of the paper, and any issues with the paper, including the “extreme edges.” 

after Katsushika HokusaiFuji from the Pass of Mishima, Koshu Province, 1760-1849, color woodblock print. Sheet: 25.2 x 36.6 cm (9 15/16 x 14 7/16 in.) Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Beware the corners and use caution when shipping.

When purchasing a print that will need to be shipped, it is important to ask how the work will be packaged. If the print in question is small enough, it can be shipped flat; but, in that case, the corners will need to be reinforced, as they are the most delicate parts of the print. 

Larger prints can be shipped in a tube; but, the edges will still need extra padding. As soon as any print is received, check the corners and edges for signs of damage and photograph any inconsistencies immediately. It’s recommended to always wear gloves when handling unframed prints. 

If possible, find a framer near to the location of the print prior to shipping. Shipping a print in a frame is actually the safest way to transport a print, although that will typically increase the shipping cost considerably. Here's a short guide on what to do if your art arrives damaged.

Install your limited edition print away from sunlight, moisture, and heat.

This advice goes for all artwork, but it especially applies to limited edition prints. Sometimes, collectors may feel that prints, due to their lower price points, would be great to hang in a bathroom, for example. Please, do not hang any art that you hope to preserve in the bathroom!

Moisture from a hot shower will destroy your print. 

Direct sunlight on a print will fade a brightly-colored print over time, even if it is glazed under UV protective glass. Sources of heat, such as radiators, are also dangerous to fine art. Here is a brief overview of the best practices to keep in mind when hanging art in your home.

Add your new print to your Artwork Archive inventory along with any provenance documentation.

Once you have acquired a limited edition print, add it to your Artwork Archive account with an image of the front, a close-up of the signature and edition count, and images of any other important details. Add the price you paid to acquire the work and Include the edition number in the artwork details, add signature notes, and upload the COA, bill of sale and any other provenance documentation under additional files. 

To learn more about how to catalog your fine art collection with Artwork Archive, check out our library of video tutorials and feel free to reach out to us directly with any questions. 

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