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Thursday, 05 April 2012


I think that although not in the spirit of the idea of a limited edition. One could argue that these are not the same. Since the previous edition were dye transfer and these are pigment inkjet prints.
Something collectors aren't supposed to like anyway.

This will be interesting to watch.


I don't know about this one-- I remember when I was in school, one our teachers (who was also a fairly well known gallerist) told us about a certain photographer who would do editions of 20 in silver, and then 20 in platinum, and then different sizes... etc. Basically, it's not the same medium or same size, so it's not limited by the edition. But I also agree, limited editions are dumb and do nothing for the value of a work.

Watch. The argument in defense will be that the limited editions are dye transfer, and the recent editions are pigment, so they are different. Hair splitting.

I really hope Jonathan Sobel loses this one. I think the fact that they're pigment prints might only increase the value of the dye transfers he has. Maybe not, but either way it's a different technology and possibly a different size so I think it's Eggleston's prerogative to sell whatever the hell he wants as long as there's a difference in the output. Or at least enough to give him a defensible position.

Ive been told more than once that if I don't create ltd. editions of some of my better images, they won't sell for "Big Money" If all I cared about was money, the last thing I ever would have become is a photographer! I'd be pushing stocks like countless people and talking about my portfolio's "upside" rather than what I hope is its artistic significance...

1. The new prints are a different size and printing process.
2. In other media, there's always a premium on "first editions" so I don't understand how photography would be any different.
3. Why wouldn't the press from having more people buying (or wanting) prints result in a greater demand for the work in general?

I'm with Eggleston on this one, though I agree that the whole concept of a limited edition photograph is artificial. I think that if they are in different media, then they are different prints. It's also not unusual for a limited edition to include so many of one size and fewer of a larger size.

As a general approach, I think it would be a better reflection of the photographic process for photographers to print a "series" of more or less identical prints made at once at a particular time, allowing the possibility of a new interpretation of the image at a later date, rather than an "edition" that in most cases isn't printed to completion anyway unless it sells. If the entire edition isn't printed at once, you can't even count on the materials being available to make an identical print, say, ten years later.

I am with you on this. All of us understand the pleasure of make a photo. But few, like Vivian Maier, are limited to this pleasure. The other pleasure is know that the photos will be under the look of some people that share our appreciation of a moment, the beauty, the odd, is the end of our task. Why put a limit on this? for money? I doubt it. All photographers feel something good when others people appreciate their job. I doubt anyone can resist this.

" .. a lot of people are pissed..." that caught my eye. In the UK this means " .. a lot of people are totally inebriated.."

The UK equivalent would be ".. a lot of people are pissed off..."

My colleagues on the continent have picked up the US version. They are constantly telling me "I was really pissed in that meeting with the boss today" - much to my amusement.

I cant help feeling a little schadenfreude. To my mind people who buy art as an investment deserve what they get.
Don't believe that art goes in and out of fashion ? Try researching the fate of some of the most popular painters of the Victorian era. As investments they would have failed miserably.

Editioning by size is as old as the hills in "art" photography and photographic collecting. Virtually all photographers I knew working and selling their prints in the gallery venue made their "limited editions" with the specific plan that if down the road, they struck it famous, they could "new edition" a set in a different size to get the big payday. Might have even pre-planned the second edition size and materials ahead of time to delineate it from the first.

This happens mostly because when these types of photographers are getting established, they're virtually giving their work away, especially after the gallery cut. Once you make it big, then someone who got a print of yours for a hundred bucks can cash in for thousands and you don't get any of it, and when you first made the print and sold it, you were probably paying people 25 bucks out of your pocket to take it.

Better be happy with the value of what you get for what you pay, like your house, there's no guarentee you'll get a payback even when you sell.

When we started our gallery and began selling inkjet prints I resisted limited editions. But customer pressure eventually led me to cave in. So we set the edition at 250 and didn't limit the size. One could be an 8x10 and the next a 30x40. This seemed to satisfy the customers and didn't seem to limit me too much. We are up to #50 on some of the images and given the amount of time I've been at it and the amount of time I've got left to make and sell prints (actuarial tables come in handy here) I think the number I chose will be sufficient to see me out of this life and into the next one. Hallelujah!
Which reminds me that you won't find me in the gallery this Sunday, I'll be singing bass in our Bethany Oratorio Society performance of the Messiah (our 131st year of performance, perhaps the oldest in America). I'll be the bald guy in the fifth row, the one slapping his head every time he comes in too early.
Man does not live by limited editions alone.

This illustrates the whole problem with Limited Editions: there is no consistent definition about what is allowed or not. Therefore, the term has no value beyond the adding an inflated auction-house vibe to art sales. No thanks.

Oh dear, the complicated life of the ultra rich. Excuse me while I shed a tear for this Johnathan Sobel person.

.....Sorry, couldn't squeeze even a little one out, oh well, back to real life.

Full marks for a post on this topic that doesn't once use "edition" as a verb.

If you look up the definition of edition you will find it means the number of copies of a work printed at the same time. That means if you make one print at a time it can be an edition of one and any prints made in the future, same size, ink set and paper, can also be an edition of one. Look it up in the OED.

Photography collectors aren't ultra-rich. For years, photography collecting was known as a refuge for collectors who couldn't afford to collect paintings. Today, you can get really good photographs for under $10k and there are relatively few sales above $1 million. Meaning you can be garden-variety rich and participate enthusiastically.


Good point, yet dictionary definitions and legal definitions have been known to differ.


Daniel S.,
Actually, it DOES have value--literal, monetary value--and that's part and parcel of the problem.


My ignorance of this subject is boundless, but aren't the original prints still "first edition," and still "vintage" prints?

Are there real-world examples that would show whether new editions like this one actually affect the value of the older prints?

Excuse me for once again dissenting from the general view here, but I actually think that limited editions have value for both photographers and galleries (which photographers need.) But if Sobel sues and Eggleston wins, I think that would effectively end the concept of photographic limited editions, short of some really unpleasant legal arrangement in which lawyers would have to be paid (I'm thinking of a specific contract signed by the photographer and the buyer, setting out the terms of the limited edition.)

I always thought that photographic 'limited editions' meant that limited numbers of the *image* could be printed, and I think most collectors assumed that. With photographs, it's the only thing that makes sense. This is important because it allows photographers and galleries to somewhat crank up the price of the photographs. A collector may buy a photograph for love, but the possibility of a little financial reward is nice, too -- especially if you buy a few each year, and 99% of those photographers will disappear into obscurity, with your money.

So what's going to happen with difficult, obscure photographers like Eggleston was in his early years? Who is going to pay $5,000 for a photograph of a tricycle (and that's about what $1500 was worth in 1980), when, if it turns out to be valuable, the photographer will flood the market with *even better prints* of the image?'

Frankly, as a small time collector, I might look at a piece of what I think of as "difficult" work, I might like it, but $5,000 for what amounts to an open edition, from a young obscure photographer that nobody's ever heard of? That's a lot of money. Most people don't get their money by picking it off trees.

Sobel supposedly has 192 limited edition Eggleston prints, which he values between $3 and $5 million. If they are worth $5 million, the average print would be worth $26,000. We ain't talking Impressionist paintings, here. Nor are we talking "ultra-rich." We're also talking about a carefully assembled collection that may now be worthless -- Eggleston is selling these new prints for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I think they will now dominate the market.

If you don't like limited editions because you just don't like them, that's fine. Don't buy them, and don't create them. But it's nice to have both routes. I think Eggleston may be in the process of destroying the route that kept him alive as a young photographer.

Mike, the problem arises because people (collectors) act as though they have value - when they don't in the conventional sense.

An apple has value because you can eat it. My house has value because I can live in it, and because it's in a decent neighborhood. A photographic print has no such attribute... you can't eat it or live in it. (Though I supposed you could burn it for warmth or with scissors and bit of duct tape cover up your naughty bits.)

The problem arises because collectors act as though photographic prints are apples or houses - possessing an innate and immutable value, which they patently do not. Their sole value lies in the perception of the collector. (And that largely because of the name attached to it. Try selling an Eggleston without attribution to collector, and see what he offers you.) This results in a world where talent is valued not for the work the produce, but for their investment value. (Which is the cause of another problem - the art world frequently acts as if investment never lose value, unlike the real world.)

New York state and California gave pretty detailed law on this, and there is absolutly no way that Eggelston did anything against the applicable laws.

I don't know how this suit would fare better in federal court but a in a NY court I don't think it would last long enough for the chairs to get warm.


The PDN story says he estimates his prints are worth $3 to $5 million, perhaps not ultra rich compared to people worth $1 billion+. But to someone who carefully saves to buy 10 rolls of 120 film....well the dude's doing OK.

John R.

Dear Mike,

I don't hold with limited editions myself, either, but that's just me and has no bearing on this.

I'd say that Sobel is very unlikely to win this case (assuming both sides have competent lawyers and witnesses), UNLESS he can come up with an explicit statement that no prints would ever be made again, period. That is not implicit in the meaning of limited edition in the art world. Prints of substantially different size and medium are considered to fall into entirely different editions. Prints of substantially the same size and medium are part of a single edition regardless of when they are printed (dictionary hair-splitting is irrelevant).

I can't define the line; as in almost all art matters it is fuzzy. But dye transfers vs inkjets and and 16x20 vs 40x60 doesn't come within a light year of it. I have done exactly this kind of work for clients and it didn't raise a hint of an ethical whisper.

Sobel may very well be looking for an out of court settlement, but there's no way he'll get a ruling in his favor unless the other side blows the case.

pax / Ctein

It's hard to assess the merits of the case without seeing the complaint. What exactly does sobel claim buyers like him were told at the time he bought the original print? If the gallery just used the term "limited edition" without further clarification, eggleston might have a good defense. But if the gallery went further and sobel bought the prints based on promises that no other prints would be made, he might have a very good claim.

I agree with others that the new edition is significantly different from the previous one and thus should be considered separate. The whole technique (print type and analog vs. digital) and size has changed. Thus it's hard to see why the original edition would be devalued; collecting is not about comparable items, it's about originals.

This does beg the more general question of what if the photographer wants to make a new edition that has different post-processing? In analog, there are print types which might be hard to perfectly replicate. In digital, there's an increasing tendency to use the raw file as a starting point, with a significant part of the image done in post-processing. Say that the photographer decides later in life that re-processing the photo would be desirable and a new edition is done. Is this now a new edition or new work?

I think that digital is going to bring up the topic of limited editions more, since making a hard copy is more mechanical than ever, the act of printing having essentially become the act of post-processing.

John Camp: "Who is going to pay $5,000 for a photograph of a tricycle (and that's about what $1500 was worth in 1980), when, if it turns out to be valuable, the photographer will flood the market with *even better prints* of the image?"

Therein lies the essence of an issue that the photo art world has been wrestling with, and will continue to. You need look no further for evidence than this past week's photo auction results at Christies and Sotheby's. Collectors and dealers overwhelmingly want reasonable assurance that their "investment" will retain financial value. So they look for names like Adams, Weston, Bourke-White, Doisneau et.al., however poorly and/or vastly over-printed they may be.

Beyond this rather secular world of dead b&w photographers there is a vibrant world of emerging and established mostly living photographic artists represented by excellent galleries such as New York's Paul Amador. BTW, nearly all new works I see are "editioned" in some way.

But the infinite exact reproducibility of digital images does rather cloud the financial future of art photography. There really is no production solution but I believe that a vibrant, if not necessarily so speculatively exuberant, market for photographic prints will continue indefinitely.

Not having seen the particulars of the collector's suit against Eggleston I don't know its merits. But purely on the basis of editioning I would say it's weak.

@Ken Tanaka:

I agree that Sobel's claim is weak (although, as somebody noted above, that would depend to some extent on the exact terms under which the gallery and Eggleston sold the original prints.)

I would also like to know the exact terms under which Eggleston sold the current edition -- given the amounts he got for them, I bet it's not "open," and I'll bet the guarantees that go with it are pretty clear.

But it's a shame that the best price guarantee you can apparently get is that the photographer is dead. That could put a real crimp in the life-style of young photographers.

Perhaps the answer will be for a bunch of galleries to get together and hire a law firm and come up with some kind iron-clad contract under federal law that could be endlessly duplicated, and that the photographers would sign, guaranteeing only x number of images will be sold.

Understand here, that I'm not either attacking or defending collectors, but I'm actually more worried about photographers. Without editioning, I bet most young photographers, no matter how talented, couldn't sell their prints for the cost of properly printing them. I really don't think art should necessarily involve a lot of charity on the part of the artist. They're workmen as well as artists, and they ought to get paid.

It would have been interesting if Mr. Sobel, an owner of an original dye transfer, offered it in competition to the new pieces. Without doing so there is no price discovery so how can he document a loss?


Dear John Camp,

From a business point of view I think you're entirely correct that limited editions enhance a photographer's salability. For all the obvious reasons that rarity sells.

That said, it creates an artistic conflict, in that most photographers become better printers (or acquire better printers by which I mean human beings) over time. My earliest prints are distinctly inferior to my current ones, both for reasons of medium and because I've become vastly more skilled over the years.

So there becomes a problem. I can either enhance my market value by restricting how many prints I will make do it, and then be done. Or I can try to produce the best art I possibly can by continuing to make prints in the future. It is not an enviable choice, but it is also not one that has a simple and clean answer. At least, not unless one is simply in it for the money.

On your other point, which is that Eggleston's actions are contrary to expectations, this is not true in the art world. It is a well understood and accepted practice, in fact a near universal one, that editions of substantial difference in size or medium are not the same. in my years of experience, this is the very first time I've heard an experienced collector assert anything other than that. Sobel's position is remarkable that way.

It may be that there is some peculiarity in New York limited edition law that does exclude the practice of making different editions of substantially different form, but unless that exists, this collector has no grounds to stand upon. To an unknowledgeable layperson, his interview in Photo District News might seem persuasive. It does in no way, though, correspond to widely accepted practice and understanding and the analogies he draws vary between inappropriate, misleading, and misdirection. they will definitely not get him anywhere in a court of law.

Rather than an Eggleston win totally upsetting the apple cart of artist in buyer, it would merely reaffrm existing practice. To the contrary a win by Sobel would represent a radical change. Perhaps not one for the worse, but definitely not business as usual as it is been practiced to date.

(Please excuse any word salad etc.)

pax / Ctein

I was most interested to see that the April 5 auction at Christie's (Mentioned in the PDN interview) sold an Eggleston Dye Transfer that had an estimate of $70-90 000. The selling price was $242 000.

This would seem somewhat to undermine Mr. Sobel's argument of devaluation even if this particular print has not been sold as a pigment print.

On the subject of Mr. Sobel's wealth, I thought it amusing that he just threw into the discussion the fact that he is also a vintage car collector. Here is a note about him after he had bought the first privately owned BMW Art car (for $850k or thereabouts):

Jonathan Sobel is the Managing Member DTF Holdings, LLC, an investment firm in New York. He is also the Managing Member of Six Sigma Auto Group, which owns the BMW, Audi, Porsche, and MINI dealerships in Southampton, as well as commercial real estate in the area. Sobel spent more than 21 years at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York.

Rich? Nah!!!

Andrew from Addis

"On your other point, which is that Eggleston's actions are contrary to expectations, this is not true in the art world. It is a well understood and accepted practice, in fact a near universal one, that editions of substantial difference in size or medium are not the same."

It's funny, and I don't know which of us is right, but my impression has always been the opposite--that "real" limited editions are strictly limited, and that the people who "cheat" by citing different photographic processes or different sizes are being low-rent and vaguely dishonorable and that it's something no top-rank photographer or gallery would do.

I suppose each of us could find ample precedents--practices on anything usually cover a broad range--but it's interesting that our respective impressions of this could be so much at odds.


Dear Mike,

We may have similar experiences. Are you talking about an attitude towards profoundly different editions, like the one in question here, or the sorts of folks who declared editions out of signed vs unsigned prints or fiber vs RC or 8x10 vs 11x14, all of which I have heard of. And do not much approve of-- if you're anywhere close enough to the ethical line that someone asks the question, you are too close.

Those, I think, are broadly looked upon with doubt.

If we're talking major change in form and substance, like chromogenic or silver gelatin vs dye transfer or carbo/platinum, I've never heard of that raising an issue. Have you?

The former type, are, obviously, much more common. They do not require special resources or skill, only avarice, a readily available source material.

I can think of a possible way out for Sobel, though. If the dye transfer edition was the very first printing of any of these images and Eggleston made a statement along the lines of "This edition will consist of X dye transfer prints. After it is done no more prints shall be made." Well, there's an ambiguity there. Did it mean to suggest not more prints ever in any form or just no more dye transfers? I could read it either way, and therein lies a court case.

But absent some declaration like that, I can't see the win.

pax / Ctein

I think Sobel's lawsuit will fail simply because he is seeking to restrain the trade of someone else. Unless he has a clear contract obligating Eggleston to limit his prints and sales on this, the only way Sobel can win is to restrain open trade by Eggleston. Our law in the US does not favor restraints of trade.

I think that Ctein and some of the others have it exactly right. The result here depends on what was said when the original "limited" edition was sold. In other words, what was the bargain? If the artist or his marketers left things ambiguous, it would seem to be a mark against him rather than for him. If there is no other way to interpret and agreement to resolve the ambiguity (and custom and practice in the field is one way to do so), the ambiguity is typically resolved against the person who created it.

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