Another thing we need to remember when considering limited editions is that status and prestige are very important in some markets and certain outlets. If, as Joe and Ken say in the comments, all galleries simply insist on limited editions, well, then, that's that. Image is everything in art; many galleries, I'm sure, would regard a high-volume, low-cost sale like one of TOP's with some low-emotion subvariant of horror.
As you know if you've ever frequented the best galleries in the world's largest cities, a good gallerista can take in at a glance whether you're the sort of person they want buying their art. I recall one trip back in the go-go '80s to a high-end New York gallery where I was approached by an astonishing creature. She was ravishingly beautiful, slender as a stiletto, dressed entirely in spotless black, with high heels that could hurt you, a face that could grace billboards, and a haircut most Americans couldn't afford. Despite the fact that I fairly radiate frumpy Midwestern stylelessness, she came up to me and told me my face looked familiar. To my astonishment, she turned out to be one of the former students from the school where I'd taught—a girl who, in high school, had been more than a bit plump and had favored a sort of English-eccentric fashion sense—floral print skirts and headbands and bright red lipstick, that sort of thing. We had a nice conversation, during which I was nonetheless not able to get over her startling conversion from cuddly duckling to black swan.
No such luck at Mary Boone midtown, where I swear the willowy bored gallery fauna could tell I wasn't a customer prospect using only her peripheral vision. Without even looking straight at me she could tell I was not worth talking to.
Probably the funniest story I have about being too uncool to talk to—I'm sure I've told this before—was when Jim Hughes, whose writings now occasionally grace this site, had written an article for the magazine about Richard Avedon. We wanted to illustrate the article with an Avedon picture, and of course we had to get permission. So I called Avedon's studio, and was transferred in due course to his third assistant. The negotiations were fairly intricate, and lasted over several phone calls. During the last one, Avedon himself was in the room at the other end of the line—but he still wouldn't talk to me directly. I'd ask the third assistant a question, the third assistant would repeat it to Avedon, Avedon would answer, and the third assistant would relay the answer to me. Back and forth, back and forth. As the editor of a little podunk photo magazine from Chicago, I was just not cool enough for Avedon to talk to directly—such things weren't done.
Anyway, I think I've thought of one way how I might price my prints if I ever got the opportunity to sell any at a gallery. First five prints, $650 each. Numbers 6–10, $1,800 each. Prints 11–15, $4,000 each. Prints 16–20, $10,000 each. Prints 21–25, $16,000 each. So I'd say the edition was limited to 25. Price: "Up to $16,000."
And then I'd make five prints.
P.S. In case you're curious about the outcome with Avedon, we were allowed to reproduce a photograph, provided we a) scan it from a book and b) not attempt to pay him anything for it. The reason for a.: he did not want to send us a repro print which we could then fail to return and sell for a profit; the reason for b.: we couldn't afford to pay what it was worth, and anything we could afford to pay would be an insult that would demean the worth of the picture. The reasons are my interpretation—they weren't made explicit by the third assistant—but I'm pretty sure I'm right.
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Featured Comment by Janne: "I've long been thinking that prints should be valued and sold using the same progression as half-stops, without any explicit limit. So, the very first print—that the photog keeps, perhaps—would be 100 (in dollars, euros or 100s of yen). The second print would be 120. The third, 140, Fourth, 180. then 200, 240, 280 and so on. The prints would definitely be limited, but without the photographer having to decide on a limit. Instead, the market would decide exactly what a given image would be worth to print. You'd also reward early buyers—friends and acquaintances, and people who 'discover' you early on—as they'd be able to buy a print for far less than a later buyer. And you can always, with no exception, accommodate the possible (and for most of us, illusory) 'I just must have this' buyer; the price for the next print is fixed before they even walk in the door."
Mike replies: I love your f-stop scheme, but then, I would.
Two things to remember about graduated pricing schemes: first, they add a not-inconsiderable extra layer of bookkeeping complexity—I could never do it for one of our sales, for instance, without getting someone to write a program for me—and second, they merely replicate, in an artificical way, what happens naturally in the market as the demand for scarce things rises and/or as scarcity increases.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "You know how to get attention in any gallery? Be an older guy, accompanied by a pretty, much younger woman. They won't leave you alone."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "Funny (not) how an experience like getting snubbed at a gallery can so deeply tattoo one's mind. But consider the other side of the coin. There are plenty of folks who would welcome being ignored when they walk into a gallery. Not public celebrities, mind you. But prominent collectors and museum curators who often get spotted, and then get managed, as soon as they enter big-time galleries. Even when they just want to browse casually. Then, of course, there's yet a third side of the coin; the visitor who gets the cold shoulder but who turns out to be a big name. I know of at least two such stories, both hilarious, that have occurred in NY galleries. These days ya never know. Although I am not a gallery hopper it's been my limited experience that galleries these days tend to welcome nearly everyone with respect and grace. They cannot afford not to do so."
Mike replies: You're right, Ken—I've had many good experiences in galleries, too. I was just talking about Kathleen Ewing a little while ago, in the post about the AIPAD show. Kathleen was really extremely indulgent of me at her gallery in D.C. when I was a student—generously allowing me access to work not on display when she knew full well I wasn't a prospective buyer.
And, really, we have to realize that people are in business to make sales, and part of smart selling is not to waste time selling to people who aren't legitimate prospects. (Kathleen would just turn me loose and then go do her work—she didn't spend any time trying to sell me on anything. She'd chat when she had time, but she had her priorities straight at all times.)
And finally, some people are just not pleasant people. The most recent bad experience I had with a rude employee was at my vet's, where everyone else is as nice as can be. And that's not snobbishness at all—it's just one employee who either rubs me the wrong way, or who I rub the wrong way, or who is just rude—I'm not quite sure which.
Featured Comment by Chris: "You wrote, 'And then I'd make five prints.'
"Then it would be limited, but not an edition.
"I haven't read all the comments on this edition rigamarole, but as you certainly know, it is only an edition if you actually make all the prints at the same time, to the same standard. Which is why Vestal always pointed out that 'limited' editions usually guaranteed a photo print was more common than most non-edtitioned prints.
"In theory, one could do it your way in the digital era and expect to get identical output, but in practice, it doesn't really work. And besides, then the earlier prints in the edition would age differently than the later ones....
"I like the idea of progressive pricing, but let's not beat around the bush: limited edition either means something, and you make an actual edition of limited run, or it doesn't, and you don't need to.
"I would be much more amenable to editioning in digital photo prints if it were clear that what was limited was the particular print size and treatment, not the eternal use of that 'negative' as a starting point for making prints. If this were the case, then limited editions would finally contribute something to the art of the print (as opposed to merely the economics)—it would make clear the variety and progression of the photographer's thinking and skills in relation to a particular image."
Featured Comment by matthew langley: "When I was at the Corcoran my friend Chris and I worked for Nancy Drysdale Gallery—Jonathon Borofsky was installing his show at the same time that Avedon was installing his (Photos From the American West)—so the Corcoran reached out to Borofsky's local gallery (Nancy Drysdale Gallery) for install help. It was a great experience. Especially interesting was lunchtime when we are all sprawled on the ground with sandwiches and drinks—just talking—the show originated from Philadelphia and at the time the main installation guy was a biker named "Blues" McCaw. He and Borofsky got along in an almost non-verbal like conversation.
"Meanwhile across the room...
"There is Avedon having lunch with his 'team.' Avedon is on one of the couches and his assistants are in the neatest semi-circle on the floor around him—just looking up the whole time, while his food is on a small table brought in for him.
"So did he just not want to talk to you? I think you might just be on the money on that one."
Featured Comment #2 by John Camp: "When I was a newspaper columnist, I wrote what all newspaper columnists write about, i.e., the daily b.s. of life. However, once a month I wrote about art, because it was my main interest in life, and I just wanted to do it, even if general readers weren't particularly interested. On a couple of occasions, in trying to interview somebody with a show at the Walker Gallery in Minneapolis, I was told by an assistant (off-the-record) that the famous man wouldn't talk directly to me because he was afraid I'd quote him, and that he'd had a bad experience with quotes. In other words, if he spoke to somebody in the press, he wanted a very controlled situation with ground rules. Later, when I was selling a lot of books, and was often interviewed myself, I found that many interviewers from newspapers, small magazines and blogs have a very loose grip on accuracy, and was once told by a blogger that he'd quoted me very incorrectly because he'd confused my interview with an interview with another writer—he was writing out the quotes from memory, rather than from notes. A couple of experiences like that can make you very wary. So it's at least possible that Avedon simply didn't want to make it possible for you to quote him...and nobody's really much interested in reading quotes from a third assistant. I have found that you can get much more accurate reporting if you actually sit down and talk to a reporter, if you're friendly and open, and create a kind of relationship—if they feel that friendliness, they'll work harder to be accurate, and are less likely to write something weird to make their story more interesting. But phoners (as they're called) can make you very nervous. Especially when you get the feeling that they want something 'good.'"
Mike replies: Good point, John. It's certainly quite possible that Avedon's procedure had nothing to do with me or my status, but was just his usual protocol for whatever reason, which might well have made sense.
Featured Comment #2 by matthew langley: "One last thing—I've been blown off by the assistant at my own gallery (in Chelsea). This is actually not too uncommon, especially with newish assistants.
"One last story (sorry I'm so talky today)—
"Frank Stella was at Leo Castelli in the Sixties (he showed there—but I mean he was there looking at the art) and he approached the assistant to inquire bout a price. Understand that Stella was never much of a dresser—but during this time he was bad—old raincoat and funky hat—completely unfashionable (early 'seventies). So the gallery assistant plays a bit coy and the next thing you know Castelli comes out for something else and recognizes one of his artists and of course gives him everything he needs and Stella evidently ends up buying the artwork.
"So don't feel bad. It happens to nobodies like me and to somebodies like Frank Stella.
"I think of it as the artifice of the art world."