Reproduction Print Sales Impact Artists in a Big Way

Title: P0661-19 Digital Art by Dutch artist ZT Tosha


The commercialization of the art business is nowhere more evident than in the marketing of reproduction prints, particularly giclees (computer prints of digital files) by businesses presenting themselves as fine art publishing companies. These days, many artists are also publishing digital prints of their art. The reproductions are many times presented as signed limited edition “fine art” prints and can sell for hundreds or occasionally even thousands of dollars. The great majority, however, are nothing more than digital prints of scans or photographs of paintings, watercolors or works of art in other mediums (as opposed to original digital works of art created by digital artists entirely or in part on computers which ARE considered to be unique).

Digital Art by Dutch artist ZT Tosha


Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with publishing, marketing, selling and collecting giclee prints as long as sellers properly represent what they’re selling and buyers know what they’re buying. Unless sellers provide adequate information, people who don’t understand what they’re buying can think they’re getting more than digital reproductions or copies of art. These prints are often available for sale with no explanations whatsoever other than that they’re signed or limited, and unless they’re told otherwise, some buyers believe they’re buying art, not computer printout copies of art. The truth is that artists whose works of art are reproduced as prints usually have little or nothing to do with the hands-on production of these editions, their only participation typically being to sign their names and number the prints which takes maybe thirty seconds or a minute or so per print, assuming they’re even signed.

The problem with how giclee prints are sometimes marketed is fourfold. First of all, many of these prints and giclees are sold in ways that confuse less sophisticated buyers. Second, some level of collectibility and/or investment potential may be implied by sellers, when in fact, these reproduction or “giclee” copies of works of art in other mediums are basically produced the same way as decorative mass-market prints and posters. Third, the markup over production costs can sometimes be quite high with the bulk of the profits going to printing companies (aka fine art publishers) and to the galleries or websites that sell these prints rather than to the artists themselves. Fourth, it can be argued that every time someone buys one of these reproduction prints or giclees thinking they’re buying original works of art, one less artist somewhere sells one less original work of art.

Even though reproduction print sales range well into the millions of dollars, artists do little to combat the misconceptions that sometimes characterize how these prints and giclees are marketed. Many feel powerless or have no interest in mobilizing, others ignore the problem out of elitism, while others decide to join on in and publish their own signed limited edition reproductions. No matter what the excuse or rationalization, as long as commercial print and giclee publishers continue to position their prints in ways that make them seem like something other than digital reproductions and more like original works of art, they’ll continue to maintain and likely even increase their market share while artists will continue to come out on the short end.

Another unfortunate aspect of the reproduction print business is that a percentage of collectors stop buying art altogether when they finally realize what they’ve been getting for their money. The really bad news is that they can sometimes tell their friends to stay away from art as well. All art and all artists suffer every time this happens. Anyone who thinks they’re buying original art, but later finds out they’ve bought something that only looks like original art will be really reluctant to ever approach artists or art galleries again. That’s a fact. In the meantime, commercial fine art print and giclee publishing companies and the galleries and websites that sell their products roll on, as do their ever-mutating terminologies and confusing explanations about what exactly they’re selling.

If you’re a traditional printmaker or a digital artist who creates original digital art (not repros), you might well consider getting involved and informed on this issue, and learn how to explain the difference between your originals (including original digital works of art) and signed limited edition giclee reproduction computer prints of works of art in other mediums produced by commercial publishing companies. Galleries that sell original art might get proactive on this matter as well and make concerted efforts to educate their clienteles about how to distinguish between original works of art and giclee or limited edition reproductions or copies of original works of art. Artists and their supporters should also consider lobbying for better disclosure laws and establishing industry standards and guidelines for labeling, representing and selling limited edition prints of all kinds (some states like New York and California already have them). Criteria for labeling and describing reproduction limited edition copy prints should also be standardized, made easy to understand, and be required reading for potential buyers– BEFORE they buy, not after.

No matter what type of prints you make or sell, do your best to inform and educate the public about the differences between originals and reproductions. As for you collectors looking for the best in original limited edition prints like etchings, lithographs, screenprints, monotypes and more, from antique to contemporary, available from top national and international dealers, check out the International Fine Print Dealers Association website. These people are exceptionally knowledgeable and sell only the real deal, not reproductions or copies.

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