Drawing the Line on Reproductions

For as long as the ability to reproduce art has been available, there have been those who have sought to use it for legitimate purposes and unfortunately in some cases for ill-gotten gain.

Technology for better and worse…sometimes a little of both

For as long as the ability to reproduce art has been available, there have been those who have sought to use it for legitimate purposes, and unfortunately also for ill-gotten gain. There were numerous reports last month about a ring of crooks busted for selling $7 million in fake Picasso, Miro, Dali and Chagall prints, including a post here. These details come nearly on the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the conviction of Kristine Eubanks and her husband, Gerald Sullivan. That pair had been charged with selling $20 million in bogus art prints, many of which were made in their own professional giclée printmaker studio.

The Encyclopedia of the Art Business

(This content is republished from the April 3, 2008 Absolute Arts blog where I am a guest blogger and where you will find an interesting running commentary on it.)

Personally, I quite enjoy that visual artists can reproduce their work and thus create a secondary cash flow from it. It gives them another price point and allows them to introduce their work to many more collectors as well. Seeing cases of fraud, as mentioned above, concerns me visual artists creating legitimate reproductions can sometimes find themselves under unwanted unnecessary scrutiny. As if making a go of it for most artists was not already difficult enough.

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What Is Art?

Part of the romantic allure of the art business – yes folks, it is a business – is it is kind of Wild West when it comes to what one wants to do and what one wants to call it. By golly, the debate over “What is art?” rages on and has never really been satisfied. Surely, the folks at the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) can attest from regularly coming under siege for funding controversial works can tell you there is a wide range of sentiment regarding the question of “What is art?”

So, if we can’t decide on what is art, is there any chance we can decide on what is a print? The short and correct answer is no. The mixed use of terms in the business creates confusion that leads to anxiety and distrust.

What Is Investment Art? Can Giclées Be Considered Investment Art?

For many, buying art is more intriguing because one can also hope it may appreciate in time. Ask any of those folks taking part in the $200 million dollar class action suit against the Park West Galleries for its cruise ship art auction tactics. You can bet all bought with the idea of getting a great deal. Unfortunately for them it was only after being shorn did they realize they overpaid for art. It is the same mentality and likely the same herd, only on terra firma, that were taken in by the aforementioned couple of Eubanks and Sullivan who foisted their fraudulent works on their “Fine Art Treasures” cable TV show. In fairness, savvy buyers through the centuries have capitalized on buying undervalued art…and still do today. Tennis great, John McEnroe, says he’s made more money in the art market than on the court.

We Should Rethink Limiting Digital Prints

I have for years championed the idea of abandoning limited editions for giclées. In fact, I blogged nearly three years ago on Absolute Arts with a post titled “Limiting Success” about it as well as on my own Art Print Issues blog. It just doesn’t’t make sense to me for a variety of reasons; including it begs the question of why limit that which can endlessly be reproduced perfectly or as improvements come along all the better.

Limited editions also nicely lend themselves to some of the schemes mentioned here. I contend if the art is good enough, people will pay a fair price for it knowing it is in unlimited supply, which might help thwart some phony print schemes. Do I care if a recording artist sells millions of copies? Why should I care how many a visual artist will sell? If I want truly intrinsic value from a limited supply, I will pony up for an original, which is why many galleries have left the print/giclée market. They are tired of romancing the artist to a prospective collector only to lose the sale via the Internet when the buyer shops it. Selling originals avoids this problem, but it puts a kink in an artist’s ability to leverage his or her work in the print market, which creates just another problem.

Regardless of what I have had to say, the fine art digital reproduction limited edition business remains strong, if not as vibrant as in its glory days. But then, you can say that about all kinds of businesses these days struggling to figure out how to survive in challenging changing times. Today, you can find many artists raking in big bucks selling limited editions in all manner of limited edition configurations. And, their galleries and they are not about to abandon a successful situation. Who can blame them? I merely argue they are leaving money on the table in the long haul by limiting editions.

How much did Greenwich Workshop & Bev Doolittle leave on the table?

Bev Doolittle’s first giclées sold out nearly 4,000 pieces in a short time. Could she have sold more and still be selling them if they were merely numbered, but not limited? I contend yes. The early low numbers would ultimately have collectible value if the art is truly appreciable and not being Ponzied up by a limited edition marketing scheme. In Doolittle’s case, I think the art would stand up to being open and sell well for years making he and her publisher more money with more happy collectors in the program as well.

A great image might sell well for years just as the back catalog of recording artists do. These steady streams of income could make a striking financial difference for popular artists and their families. Some, like the gifted watercolor artist, Steve Hanks, have retired huge editions on paper and are now releasing the images on canvas. I think Hanks would have never had to quit selling his work if the editions were they open and sequentially numbered because the work is enormously popular, timeless, compelling, representational and surreal at once. Instead, he’s had to resort to putting his watercolor work on canvas, which hardly reproduces as faithfully as his editions on paper.

Someone commented on my blog recently that giclées cannot be considered limited editions unless they are all produced at one time. The contention is they are a limited series instead. Once again, an interesting arguable take that further muddies the waters and heightens the desire for a ruling body to take hold.

Dead Artist’s Estates Are Still Cranking Out Editions – So Are the Crooks – Who is Gary Arseneau?

To further stir the pot, there are many dead artists whose estates continue to print reproductions of their work. This, of course has been going on for years with the big names like Dali, Picasso, Miro and Chagall. While long gone, these artists remain in the news for the sale of both legitimate and fake reproductions of their work. Now along comes Gary Arseneau, he is a self-styled independent scholar, an artist, printmaker of original lithographs and a blogger. He is also the self-published author of books such as The Monument to the Victor Hugo Deception.

We ought to be asking, “Who is Gary Arseneau?” Is he a gadfly, or a crusader tilting in the wind trying to stem the tide of fake reproductions? You can only decide by spending time on his blog where he outlines in great detail his argument that the works of Rodin, Degas, Matisse, Duchamp and even Dr. Seuss that are being reproduced by their estates and heirs are fakes. He makes a heck of an interesting argument. Certainly, if you care about reproductions, buy them, produce or market them, you owe it to yourself to study his findings, read his arguments and come up with your own conclusions.

Is Having a Set of Enforcable Understandable Standards Too Much to Hope For?

Regardless of your personal opinion, the can of worms opened by Mr. Arseneau hastens the idea that establishing and enforcing true standards in the art world would be helpful. It is a crazy notion, I agree, but until a line is drawn on reproductions, the visual arts community will carry the burden of proving itself beyond reproach each time art of any value goes to market.

Artists Who Establish Authenticity and Transparency in Their Business Practices Will Win

As the world shrinks due to instant information and communication, being authentic and transparent becomes imperative. For those artists who find a way to embrace authenticity and transparency in how they create multiples or reproductions of their popular work and manage and market their business, there is ample reward awaiting them and their rightful heirs.

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The Encyclopedia of the Art Business

Barney Davey

I help artists and photographers find buyers, sell more art and operate profitably.

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