One more thing to mention about limited editions is a consideration we haven't talked about yet, which is that, in order to make a picture valuable on the art market, scarcity alone won't do the trick. It's a truism in book collecting that most books are first editions, because most books never reach a second. Similarly, most photographic pictures have great scarcity—these days, most pictures exist in print editions of zero, and a great many more exist in a print run of one. That doesn't help their value. It doesn't matter how limited your print edition is if no one wants your picture.
The first task is to publicize and earn an audience for yourself and your photographs.
And, of course, to some extent the goals of adding value by enforcing scarcity, and making a picture well known to begin with, oppose each other. The more prints there are out there in the world, the more places the picture's exhibited, the more people see it, the more people you can find who might want it. I'm not saying that's necessary to make a picture well known—traditionally, publication in magazines and books and in other forms of reproduction helped greatly, and now, notoriety on the internet and in other electronic forms could help the cause—but some pictures communicate much better in the original than in reproduction, so having more prints out there in the right places could help, not hinder, their worth.
My brother, a medical doctor by profession, has been an avocational gemologist since he was 14. He points out that to be valuable, a gemstone has to be rare, but it can't be too rare—because then there's not enough supply to satisfy and sustain a market. Diamonds aren't particularly rare. They're rare enough, and they have scarcity vectors (the larger or the more perfect, or both, the more scarce they become—there's only one Hope diamond)—some of which are artificial (diamond production is largely controlled). But if scarcity and rarity were what mattered most, many other kinds of stone would be much more valuable than diamonds. (I'll ask Charlie if he'll comment on this post and amplify the point from a position of better gemological knowledge.)
Of course, the picture is not all that people are buying when they buy a print—they're buying the artist. One print is in a sense a "sampling" of an artist's entire body of work, and implies the rest of that body of work. Or they might be buying a particular provenance, or something else intrinsic to the object. You might remember an article I wrote about Diane Arbus—certainly the print that Arbus gave to Colleen and Cathleen Wade with a note of thanks scribbled on it is worth more than a similar print without that provenance, and an Edward Weston print made by Edward himself is more valuable than a print made later by his son Cole, even if Cole's is the better print.
There was a case detailed in The Atlantic Monthly a while back* of a photography expert, Walter Rosenblum, who was accused of forging a particular famous Lewis Hine print, "Powerhouse Mechanic." Rosenblum was an acknowledged expert on Hine to whom galleries took their prints for authentication—and he also (probably—I'm not sure this was verified) owned a negative of the Hine picture (there were several); and he was also an accomplished photographer and printer in his own right. Trouble was, a modern (or "posthumous," meaning not made in Hine's lifetime) print by Rosenblum was worth about $2,000, and a vintage print made by Hine was worth about $20,000. So one thing led to another, apparently temptation proved too much, and he allegedly began producing counterfeits which he himself would then authenticate as vintage prints! He was eventually exposed both because of the suspiciously expanding supply of supposedly vintage originals, and because experts detected the telltales of his own distinctive printing style in the questionable "Hines." Now, obviously, professionals were being fooled by the counterfeits, at least for a while (although it was alleged that some might have suspected what was going on but turned a blind eye because they, too, were profiting from it). My point is, the fact that a vintage print can be ten times more valuable than a modern print good enough to fool experts demonstrates that there is value inherent in objects that has nothing to do with the picture itself or how famous it is.
Still, one can at least propose, if not prove, that maybe Ansel Adams's "Moonrise" is worth so much not despite existing in an 800+ print unlimited edition, but in part because he made so many prints for so many people over the course of 43 years.
This argument doesn't preempt the desirability of limited editions, but it might temper it somewhat.
*Well worth a read.
P.S. I'll be off tomorrow. See you on Sunday!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Charlie Johnston (Mike's bro): "Classic economic theory. Price is a function of supply and demand, but both can be manipulated—demand by advertising, and supply by manipulation of a market. Diamonds and DeBeers illustrate both. Using aggressive advertising, they have created a perception of rarity that boosts demand, and they have in the past supported prices by withholding material from the market.
"The supply and demand equation also breaks down at both ends. Demand for air is infinite—but so is the supply, so the price is essentially zero. When supply is near zero (as in your Hope Diamond or single print examples), price is no longer set by a market, but by an individual transaction.
"Examples abound in the world of gems. Benitoite (the State Gem of California) has all the attributes a gem needs. It is durable, beautiful, and rare. Thousands of times rarer than diamonds, in fact—but the price is not commensurate with the rarity, because so few people outside of California are familiar with it. At one point, the rarest gem on earth was Painite, limited to a single crystal and a single faceted specimen. Kind of hard for that to be a "must" for a complete collection. The source was eventually (recently) found, and a cut stone can now be procured for less than a hundred bucks. Vanishingly rare, to be sure, but only of interest to collectors.
"Your print forger was essentially creating a synthetic. Synthetic ruby, for example, is arguably more beautiful than a natural stone, and shares the exact same chemical composition, hardness, crystal structure, and color. It's also manufactured by the hundreds of tons, and is widely available for pennies a carat. A comparable natural ruby set the record for the highest price ever paid for a colored stone: $425,000 per carat.
"A collector of rare photographic prints does have one distinct advantage over a gem collector. There will never be any more prints made by Ansel Adams, because he's in no position to make any and will never be again. On the other paw, there is a gem named for the type locality of Danbury, Connecticut, called Danburite. Found in small crystals with even smaller cuttable areas, it was once a very scarce and fairly high priced collectors' stone. Then someone found a huge deposit in Mexico which produced large, flawless crystals, and the price dropped like a rock!
"So, despite being your little brother, I entirely agree with you. While collectors are by nature an odd breed, it is clear that there must be some critical mass of both demand and supply to be able to gauge the market worth of any collectible."