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  • Reproduction Print Sales Impact Artists in a Big Way

    The commercialization of the art business by big business is nowhere more evident than in the marketing of reproduction prints, particularly giclees (computer prints of digital files) by entities presenting themselves as fine art publishing companies. These reproductions are often advertised as signed limited edition "fine art" prints and can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The great majority, however, are nothing more than digital prints of scans or photographs of paintings, watercolors or works of art in other mediums (as opposed to original digital works of art created by digital artists entirely or in part on computers which ARE considered to be unique).

    Artists whose works of art are reproduced as prints usually have little or nothing to do with the hands-on production of these editions, their only participation typically being to sign their names and number the prints which takes maybe thirty seconds or so per print at most. And for this, selling prices can range into the hundreds or possibly even thousands of dollars. Those who sell these reproductions sure want people to think they're something more than glorified artist signatures, and plenty of people do. Oftentimes, sellers don't have to say a word to convince them. For instance, most people who shop at galleries or buy directly from artists believe that they're buying art, not reproductions of art. But that's not necessarily true.

    The problem with this end of the art business is fourfold. First of all, the large majority of these prints and giclees are sold in such ways as to confuse less sophisticated buyers about whether or not they're getting original works of art. Many people mistakenly believe they're original works of art. Second, some level of collectibility and/or investment potential may be implied by sellers, when in fact, these reproduction or "giclee" copies of works of art in other mediums are basically produced the same way as decorative mass-market prints and posters of art. Third, the markup over production costs is often quite high with the bulk of the profits going to printing companies (aka fine art publishers) and to the galleries or websites who sell these prints rather than to the artists themselves. Fourth, it can be argued that every time someone buys one of these reproduction prints or giclees thinking that they're buying original works of art, one less artist somewhere sells one less original work of art.

    Even though reproduction print sales range well into the millions of dollars, artists do little to combat the misconceptions that sometimes characterize the way these prints and giclees are sold. Many feel powerless or have no interest in mobilizing, others ignore the problem out of elitism, still others try to join the printing companies rather than beat them by publishing and marketing their own signed limited edition reproductions. No matter what excuses or rationalizations artists come up with to explain their inaction, as long as commercial print and giclee publishers continue to position their prints in ways that make them seem like something other than digital reproductions and more like original works of art, they'll continue to maintain and likely even increase their market share while artists will continue to come out on the short end.

    Another unfortunate aspect of the reproduction print business is that a percentage of collectors stop buying art altogether when they finally realize what they've been getting for their money. Not only do many of them believe that their repro prints and giclees are original works of art, but they also often view them as investments-- not much different than stocks or bonds. Buy now; sell later for more. So when these people discover somewhere down the road that their "original limited edition fine art investments" are neither-- like when they try to sell on secondary markets and realize they're worth nowhere near what they thought they were-- they become disillusioned about collecting and stop buying art altogether.

    The bad news is that all art and all artists suffer for it because these people are now out of the game for good. The really bad news is that they can sometimes tell their friends to stay away from art as well. Anyone who thinks they're buying original art, but finds out later that they've bought something that only looks like original art will be really reluctant to ever approach artists or art galleries again. That's a fact. In the meantime, commercial fine art print and giclee publishing companies and the galleries, both bricks & mortar and online, that sell their products roll on. They flood the marketplace with slick websites, plenty of advertising, beautifully appointed galleries, trained sales people, and ever more mutating terminologies and confusing explanations about what it is that they actually sell.

    If you're a traditional printmaker or a digital artist who creates original digital art (not repros), you might well consider getting involved and informed on this issue, and learn how to explain the difference between your originals (including original digital works of art) and signed limited edition giclee reproduction computer prints of works of art in other mediums produced by commercial publishing companies. Galleries that sell original art might get proactive on this matter as well and make concerted efforts to educate their clienteles about how to distinguish between original works of art and giclee or limited edition reproductions or copies of original works of art. Artists and their supporters should also consider lobbying for better disclosure laws (some states like New York and California already have them). Criteria for labeling and describing reproduction limited edition copy prints should be standardized, made easy to understand, and be required reading for potential buyers-- BEFORE they buy their "art," not after.

    Back in the good old days (the late 1990s on up until he passed away in 2004), artist, illustrator and printmaker Mel Hunter railed regularly about commercial reproduction prints and giclees. He relentlessly crusaded for all artists who create original limited edition prints like etchings, lithographs, serigraphs, silkscreens and other types of traditional original prints. Well aware that he was up against a highly capitalized and highly successful industry, he began publishing a newsletter, PRINTthoughts, that attempted not only to inform and educate the public about the differences between original and reproduction prints, but also to establish industry standards and guidelines for labeling, representing and selling both types of art. PRINTthoughts offered statements and discussions by artists and printmakers, articles on various forms of printmaking, articles on original versus reproduction prints, discussions of the "limited edition" concept, and sample disclosure forms and certificates of authenticity which could eventually be legislated into law. I'm not sure about the current availability of PRINTthoughts or of Mel Hunter's contributions to the field, but anyone interested in inquiring might try visiting the Mel and Susan Smith-Hunter website or calling them at 802-465-8088. It would be nice to see all those essays and articles available once again-- online.

    While you're at it, those of you looking for the best in original limited edition prints, from antique to contemporary, from top national and international dealers should check out the International Fine Print Dealers Association website. These people sell the real deal, not reproductions or copies.


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