How do Michael and Paula reconcile with the people who paid full price for their work? Will offering prints at such a low price bring the value of all their prints down? And what happens when someone tries to sell the 'cheap' print in the future—will there be a note in the bill of sale stating the buyer originally paid only 1/10th the value? I hope they do well in their sale, but these are all questions that need to be addressed.
That's maybe a more complicated set of questions than you might think, Gary, but I'll do my best.
First of all, none of these four pictures have ever been sold before, for any price, higher or lower than what we're offering them for. They won't ever be sold again (by the artists, I mean) after this five-day event. So to begin with, there's no chance that a previous buyer paid more than our price for one of these pictures, and no chance that someone will be sold one of these pictures for a higher price in the future. Furthermore, this sale doesn't affect the asking prices of their other prints. And finally, none of Michael and Paula's other prints are available for the same prices as these.
That's the story for the primary market, i.e., the artists themselves selling their own work for the first time. As for the secondary (resale) market, well, I happen to have no idea what the secondary markets think of Michael's or Paula's prints—whether they frequently come up for sale or not, and, if they do, whether they go for higher or lower prices than they were originally sold for, or than they would sell for if they were purchased from the photographers now. I would guess that it's impossible to generalize, because value depends on the individual picture, how many prints of that picture are available, how often one comes up for sale, how many people want it, and how much those people are willing and able to pay.
If there is any activity in a secondary market, however, generally the "provenance" of a high-volume sale like this one will be known to dealers, and the resale prices will adjust accordingly. ...Or not, if the market decides not. But no, there won't be any notation on these prints that they came from the TOP sale.
Now consider that Michael and Paula have a body of work over their lifetimes that extends to some 5,000 negatives they've made prints of. Many pictures have sold multiple times, and many have never sold once. Michael tells me that their standard practice is to make five prints of any image they like, keeping one for themselves. If the other four sell, then they print five more, and the price goes up a bit. They also raise their prices as pictures get older, mainly because they don't want to spend a lot of time printing old work. Recently, they made the decision to stop printing their old work at all—that is, no more batches of five more when the previous batch runs out. They want to put all their energies into making new work. In the case of their better-known, more popular pictures that have been printed multiple times, the prices of the last few available, if there are any, will go up considerably, some as high as $10,000.
What this means is that none of their prints are editioned—or, if you will, the "edition" limit is set when the image is retired. But as David Vestal is fond of pointing out, most photographers make fewer prints of almost all of their pictures than typical limited editions are limited to! Many of Michael and Paula's pictures—I don't know how many exactly, of course—might have sold one, two, or three times, making them more rare than most limited editions.
Volume influences rarity. Usually, rarity influences price; but not necessarily. Some photographers' best-selling and highest-priced prints are also by far their most common. Even partway through this sale, it's already obvious that these four pictures will exist in far more prints than most of Michael and Paula's other pictures do (as of yesterday, they'd sold roughly 25 prints of each picture). On the other hand, their most popular images have sold as many as 100 prints, with a number of images having sold 40 or more. Art doesn't work by supply and demand entirely. Whether these four TOP Print Offer pictures will eventually be less valuable or more valuable on the secondary market is entirely for the secondary market to decide; probably less, based on the low selling price and the relatively high number of prints made, but who can tell? In any case, a low original selling price isn't necessarily a matter of concern to the secondary market. Brett Weston used to sell "student prints" for $25—prints that were identical to his regular prints. When his work is auctioned today, no differentiation is made as to which prints originally sold for student print prices and which for regular prices.
As to how previous buyers of their work might feel about this sale, well, you'd have to ask them! But it depends on a lot of things. It depends on who the previous buyers are and why they bought their own print or prints. Most people buy prints for the pleasure of ownership, not the promise of deferred financial reward. If the previous buyer was a museum, they could care less about our sale, because museums seldom deaccession work and most don't speculate in the art market in any case (and this isn't a trivial clientele, either...Michael and Paula have actively marketed to museums, and their work is in more than 140 collections, far more than is the case with most photographers). The worst case would be a pure investor who might worry that a lower-cost offering would dilute the value of his or her own holdings. But even that goes both ways, because a popular sale like this one might actually serve to promote the artists and generate more interest in their work. Who knows?
Finally, I might point out that there's nothing stopping any of their previous buyers from buying one of these. Maybe they'd be delighted to add another Smith or Chamlee to their existing ones at a bargain price. As I said, you'd have to ask them—and you'd probably get a variety of answers.
Clear as mud? Sorry for the long reply. As I said, it's a complicated set of questions.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Nikhil Ramkarran: "I can speak only for myself, but I participate in these print sales (when I can) because of the print technique and the aesthetics, in roughly equal measure. I own a platinum print from one of the best platinum printers, and a great photographer. Soon I will own a great silver contact print from one of the best printers, and great photographer. And best of all, I can own these great pieces of art and craft because the prices are affordable for me. I'll let the artists worry about dilution of their market, if they think it is something worth worrying about. Right now, I'm looking at Carl Weese's beautiful print on my office wall (directly opposite my desk, where all my favourite art hangs, making being in the office tolerable...just), and can't wait until Paula Chamlee's is hanging next to it."
PWP (partial comment—for PWP's complete comment, please see the Comments section): "I'll chime in as a current owner of several Michael and Paula prints. It doesn't bother me a bit that the TOP print sale prints are selling for less than I paid for mine; in fact, I think it's a wonderful opportunity for others to own some of their work. The prints I bought were chosen carefully because I love the subject matter. I also bought one of their Azo Portfolios to help fund the Azo replacement paper that Michael helped develop. I don't care about the secondary market because I love my prints and will never sell them (my heirs will have to deal with that if they choose)."