By Holly Stuart Hughes
The fine-art market is based on scarcity. Although a photograph can be reproduced endlessly, artists limit their editions, giving buyers a guarantee that they will release a finite number of prints at a given size. “The collectors have to believe there’s integrity to what you’re selling, and the edition numbers have to mean something,” says Robert Klein, owner of Robert Klein Gallery. “That confidence is vital to sustaining a career in the fine-art photography world.”
Limiting editions, however, means photographers have less inventory to sell. How should photographers balance the short-term goal of selling as many prints as possible against the long-term goals of preserving the value of their archives and creating a legacy for the future? Once an edition of prints sells out, “You can’t just print one for posterity,” says private dealer Lee Marks of Lee Marks Fine Art.
Many photographers are reluctant to forego sales now when the vagaries of the market, and their own future prospects, are so unpredictable. “Am I keeping one or two prints for my retirement? I wish, but I’m usually so in need of money in the present, that I sell every print I can,” says Lori Nix, who has had several editions sell out. “I’m also hopeful, perhaps naively, that I will continue to make strong work when I’m in my 50s and 60s and so on.”
The decision to sell or save is highly personal. “You have to take into account who the artist is, what their level of productivity is, what their financial needs are,” says Klein.
We asked gallerists and photographers about their long-term strategy for print sales and learned the steps photographers can take to make informed decisions.
The Importance of Record Keeping
It’s essential for artists to track how many prints they’ve sold or given away. That way, “If someone calls and says, ‘I like this image. Where is it in the edition?’ we know,” says Michael Foley of Foley Gallery. Whenever he signs new artists, Foley asks about the numbers and sizes of prints of each work that they’ve already sold or given to friends or family. “If we edition the work at the same size as the prints that are out there, we have to consider those part of the editions.”
Photographer Jessica Todd Harper recorded her first sales in a notebook, then switched to an Excel spreadsheet. Although she is now represented by two galleries, she still keeps records herself. “The buck stops with the photographer—the gallery could go out of business, you could leave the gallery, but it’s your brand. It’s up to you.”
When Nix updates her records, she shares them with her seven galleries. She believes that Excel is most efficient for “keeping track of prices, especially price increments.”
All of the photographers and dealers interviewed for this story use stepped pricing: In an edition of ten, for example, prints 1 through 3 sell for the lowest price and numbers 4 through 6 cost more, up through the last print, which is “priced on request,” says Marks. Keeping accurate records about the status of a print—if it’s reserved for a prospective buyer, for example, or on loan for an exhibition—prevents mistakes, such as selling the third print in an edition for the price of the fourth.
Foley says record keeping is simple. “Just make an Excel spreadsheet for the body of work, then next to each image, list the sizes and number.” The list could also be organized by year: “These are all the prints I made in 2014.” He recommends adding thumbnail images because “titles are hard to keep track of.” When he sells a print, he checks off the number or writes in the buyer’s name and shares the revised chart with other galleries representing the artist. If artists keep records “from the get-go,” he says, “it becomes habit.”
What’s Yours to Give
In addition to the numbered prints in an edition, photographers make one or two “artist’s proofs.” The term comes from lithography, and in photography it originally referred to the final tests made after a photographer refined a print of a negative, Marks explains. Although artists have to disclose to buyers how many artist’s proofs (APs) exist, they are for the artist’s personal use and are traditionally not sold at the same time as the edition prints. Marks notes, “The French expression is hors de commerce, meaning ‘outside of business,’” (often abbreviated “HC”).
“I think the artist’s proof should be hands off,” says Foley. “It goes in the safety deposit box to be used by the artist at a future date.” If a museum comes looking someday for an artist’s early work, Foley says, “I don’t want to say the editions are all sold out—and that the artist’s proofs are sold, too.”
He offers a caveat, however. Once an edition sells out, the APs can sell for whatever the market will bear. “If an artist has a book project coming up or really needs funding and can sell this print for $8,000, maybe that’s a good investment.”
Artists sometimes donate APs to charity auctions, too. “In a perfect world, you’d give your best work,” says photographer Julie Blackmon, but artists should consider how many prints of the image they have left.
Photographer Jen Davis says that early in her career she often donated APs, some for images “that were already highly sold.” In hindsight, she says, “Perhaps I should have chosen a lesser-known photograph to give, or a smaller print.” Now, she checks first with Marks, her dealer, and chooses the causes and events she wants to support with care. (For information on how Davis and other photographers arranged for the sale of a particular print to help fund the publication of photo books, see “Selling Prints to Fund Books: It’s Complicated.”)
Marks says that charity auctions are “tricky”: “I don’t like to have things go for a third of what I’m selling them for.” Klein recommends making a separate “donation print” at a different size, so as not to “pollute the price structure of the market,” he says.
Before the Last Print Sells
For the last print in an edition, a photographer can negotiate the current market value. But there are other considerations besides price. How photographers think about their equity or legacy is often a reflection of their career goals or their age.
For new photographers, selling out an edition can build buyers’ confidence in their work, Klein says. For some more established artists in his gallery stable, however, the last print in an edition is reserved for “museums and prestigious collections,” he says.
Photographer Sze Tsung Leong says he decides on an image-by-image basis what prints to keep for himself. “It’s extremely important to me that my work be part of public collections and that it be accessible to the public.” He adds, “Museums are also interested in a wider and more challenging range of images than collectors generally are.”
Harper’s 2001 image “Self Portrait with Christopher and my Future In-Laws” is nearly sold out of its 16×20-inch edition of ten prints. Her APs are gone, too: “I traded one with an artist and gave the other to my gracious in-laws.” She has no regrets about letting it go. “I’m so over it. I don’t see it as my most interesting picture.” Her more recent work will be in an exhibition at Rick Wester Fine Art in New York City to coincide with the publication of her second book, The Home Stage (Damiani). “My main concern is always to make good work, and I assumed I’d continue making new work, and even better work.”
“Photographers who have depth to their work will continue to make good work,” says Marks, but adds, “You’re going to make good work in the future, but it’ll be different.”
Marks says that when photographer Davis first began her self-portrait series over a decade ago, “The last thing she was thinking about was her legacy.” She has now published the work in her first book, Eleven Years (Kehrer Verlag), has photos from the series in 20 museums and is making new work. Marks recently counseled Davis to consider saving some prints from the series: “The material is so brave and gutsy, I think it’s important to hang onto those.” Marks explains, “She might not come across an idea that resonates with as many people as that. The work may be just as good, but it might not sell as well. It may sell better, but who knows?”
The market can be fickle. Nix says she has seen photography careers wax and wane. “Only time will tell if my work will rise in equity. Fingers crossed,” she says. “I think if I can continue to make work that is thought- provoking, relevant and desirable, then I am master of my equity.”
via PDN Online: Managing Your Inventory of Limited-Edition Prints.