Collectors now associate limited editions with collecting fine prints. However, Chris Lane, co-owner with Donald H. Cresswell of The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd., one of the most prestigious print and map shops in the country, says limited editions are relative newcomers to the print-making landscape.
"The notion of limited editionsand the numbered prints that go with themis a notion that developed in the late 19th century," explains Chris, who is second vice president of The American Historical Print Collectors Society. "To some degree, it was a marketing ploy. They thought: 'If we limit the number of impressions and put numbers on them they will be treated as a fine art rather than as commercial prints.' And they were right."
Limited editions were a response to the mass-production of images that became possible with modern printing techniques such as the lithograph. Before this period, Chris explains, all prints were limited editions by necessity, so nobody bothered to number them. That's why the question Chris has heard often"Is this a limited edition?"doesn't really apply to prints made before the late 19th century.
"With an engraving, printers could only make 500 to 1,000 impressions before the copper plate would wear out," Chris explains, noting that wood blocks were also fragile templates. "And even if they could run off 10,000, they couldn't sell close to that number."
Demand was limited because until the early 19th century only the upper classes had the excess income to indulge a taste for fine prints. That began to change as a more affluent middle class entered the print-buying market. Printmakers responded to the increased demand by mass producing their prints. Printmakers such as Currier and Ives took full advantage of the new technology, issuing huge numbers of prints.
But as the print supply expanded, sale price per image plummeted. Printmakers responded with limited editions, a way of making more money with fewer prints. American artist James McNeill Whistler and other artists producing etchings at the end of the 19th century took full advantage of limited editions. Today, many fine prints are numbered.
"A lot of people focus on the numbers," says Chris. "They think that's what gives it value. But it's a marketing tool, especially today. The bottom line is that a print has to be intrinsically good to have value. It has to have quality. If somebody is only making 50 copies of a print that doesn't mean that any one of the 50 is any good. The first question is and always should be: 'Is this print worth having?'"