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Demand for prints and multiples has increased with the rise of the contemporary art market

Are today’s “limited edition prints” really original, and will they gain in value? Probably not

As the contemporary art market has boomed, so internet companies selling prints and multiples have mushroomed. Inside Space, Counter Editions, The Multiple Store, and eyestorm are just some of the more successful.

Not since the Pop Art movement in the 1960s has there been such an interest in prints and multiples among young British artists. Everyone is doing it: Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Langlands and Bell are just some of those who are choosing this way of spreading the word. Their productions come in large editions, with some of the eyestorm editions running to 1,000, while runs of 300 or 500 are common.

Flat art is not the only story: the market is also growing for three-dimensional multiples. The Multiple Store deals almost exclusively in three dimensional work Counter Editions is shortly to launch a Jake and Dinos Chapman edition of a little mannequin figure and eyestorm deals in various three dimensional multiples including a Jean-Michel Basquiat Swatch Watch for $135.

Artists who make multiples talk about the wish to make their work more accessible and widely available, while the publishers talk about pushing the boundaries and moving an artist’s work into new directions. However, the bottom line is the potential to make a great deal of money for both print publisher and artist.

As for sales, with the recently booming economy, contemporary art has become cool and happening. Your average yuppie no longer wants a framed poster from the Tate Gallery; she or he wants something more original and intellectual—a topical, sexy work of art but at an affordable price. In addition, the new internet companies appeal to the trader instinct in many buyers, who hope that their prints are “investments” which will one day show a big return.

In general, the promises of the internet have proved hollow and all the new multiples companies have found they cannot just sell off the internet. All have opened galleries and promote themselves through art fairs or linking up with public exhibitions. Among them is Inside Space, which does not commission prints but instead carries a large stock of already published work by leading contemporary artists. Originally launched as an internet company, it has now opened a large gallery in Selfridges, as well as a second gallery near Oxford Circus on Great Portland Street.

But just how original are prints or pieces produced by these new publishers, and do new buyers really understand what they are getting? According to Alan Cristea, one of the UK’s leading artists’ print publishers, there are three reasons for artists to make a print. “To create an original work of art, to disseminate their work and to increase their income. However if the artist has no real interest in the different print media, the first and most important reason is immediately eliminated and the production of the limited edition print becomes merely a money-making exercise”.

A labour intensive series of hand-coloured carborundum etchings such as those just produced by Gillian Ayres for Alan Cristea must of necessity be in a small edition of 35 just because of the cost and time involved in making the prints. The production cost was over £60,000 and only three prints a day were pulled. Today, however, sophisticated reproductions of already existing works by offset, lithography, screen printing or straightforward photography are relatively quick and cheap to make and the profit margins for both artists and publisher are potentially huge. In general the larger the edition the less likely it will go up in value. Will an eyestorm edition of a Magnum print which cost $500 ever have any resale value? I think not.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shark-infested waters?'