Buying art is not just for enjoyment, but it’s a financial investment that many new collectors want to get right. But, there’s more than just avoiding art fraud and forgeries. There are legitimate and valuable art reproductions; in some cases, so-called “originals” may not exist. So, what are art reproductions?
Art reproductions are copies of an artist’s original work. The differences in production method, quality, and association to the source artwork often determine the value of the fine art pieces: authenticity and limited availability factor into the costs when purchasing works.
Let’s give you some base terminology before diving into art’s authenticity and pricing. We’ll also tell a short story about how two major auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, were tricked by fake art.
An original work of art is a one-of-a-kind item created by the artist. It is unique and not a copy or reproduction of another piece of art.
Original artwork is valued more than its identical duplicates. Why?
Two researchers from Yale University, George E. Newman and Paul Bloom were curious about why this was the case. To figure it out, they conducted a series of five experiments.
After much deliberation, two key psychological factors stemmed as explanations for this discrepancy in value:
- Law of contagion
People assess artwork as an endpoint to a performance. From this perspective, an original is different from a duplicate because it is the end of a different sort of performance. The original is a creative work. A copy is not.
Another explanation is rooted in the law of contagion. This law posits that objects can take on a unique quality or essence through physical contact. An original Picasso painting is more valuable because Picasso actually touched it, and therefore it has some of his special essences. In contrast, a reproduction would not have been handled by Picasso and therefore would not be as valuable.
The image above shows the results of an experiment by George E. Newman and Paul Bloom. They found that, even when the effort required to create the original artwork was the same as the effort required for the duplicate, participants see the original as more valuable. This is because the value of the original artwork comes from factors such as contagion (degree of physical contact with the artist) and the fact that people see an original artwork as a unique creative act.
For many reasons, people sell prints and reproductions. Although these two are copies of some original image, they are made in quite different ways. You must be aware of the differences before buying.
Original Artist’s Prints
Reproductions do not refer to all multiples of a work of art. Let’s first look at the most valuable of the reproductions, prints. This type of reproduction is generated by the artist’s hand. Still, it has a direct connection to the original through the creator—but a specific kind generated without the hand of the artist. Prints are made by the artist.
The best way to think of the difference between a reproduction and a print is the level of the artist’s involvement. Which is to say, the artist makes the print, but the machine makes other types of reproductions.
This will sound like hairs are being split for the sake of a word, but that word used to mean something long ago but does not mean the same thing now. Possibly that is the case but consider the following.
In all prints, the artist has a direct hand in creating and employing the medium that delivers the prints. For example, if the artist uses a relief medium to create the print, that means the artist carves the wood or lino cut of the painting used to transfer the work to make the print.
This also means the artist controls the making of the print as much as the making of the original painting, along with everything that implies, from the use of the medium to the application. The artist adjusts:
- How color is transferred
- How long to use the medium that does the transfer
- How the transfer itself is carried out
This is why a numbered and signed print means something to the buyer. It comes from the artist who created it with the same care and attention as went into the original artwork painting.
Reproductions can look great, but they will often be shown to be reproductions at a magnified level. Mass printing of that artwork creates a reproduction of a work of art through mechanical means that focus more on quantity than quality. This does not make the art they produce of lesser value.
Think of it this way: the Van Gogh hanging above your dining room table is a reproduction. Copies were printed at a massive scale using one of a few different methods to sell a lot of them. Does that cause the painting to mean less to you? Of course not. Reproductions that allow many admirers to be touched by the original work daily are not bad. They look good, and you love them.
The confusion comes about because artists and collectors have begun using the words “prints” and “reproductions” interchangeably.
So this article is not trying to tell you that reproductions are bad, but that you need to know the differences and the techniques behind the finished product and what a reproduction is when someone tries to sell you a print.
So what are the different kinds of reproductions?
Relief (Artist Print)
Prints can be classified by the surface used to make them. Relief prints are made on a surface that stands out from the background. The artist carves an image into a linoleum or wood block and then paints it.
When you use wood, the print is called a woodcut. The image is drawn onto the wood block. The background (non-printing part) is carved out, so the image is raised above the surface. Ink or paint is applied to the raised portions of the carving, which are then pressed onto paper, creating a mirror image of the carving.
Linoleum block printing (linocut) is done similarly, but uses linoleum instead of wood. It is easier to cut, but may not be as durable as a woodblock print.
Intaglio (Artist Print)
With intaglio prints, the artist uses a metal plate to create the pattern. The image is gouged, scratched, or etched into the metal. The grooves hold ink while the rest of the surface is cleaned off.
When the inked plate is run through a press with damp paper, the paper is forced into the grooves picking up the ink and creating an image on the paper. The intaglio family of prints includes:
Aquatint creates tonal results in ink images. The name comes from the Latin words for “water (aqua)” and “tone (tint).”
The artist covers the metal plate with rosin powder. The plate is then burned to melt and glue the rosin to the metal. The metal is then placed in an etching bath with water and acid. Before that, some areas of the metal are painted with acid-resistant wax called “ground” to stop the acid from biting. What is the acid for, one may ask? The acid helps create an effect of a water wash. Also, by timing how long the plate is left in the etching tub, you can get different tones – the longer it stays in, the darker it gets.
The metal is coated with an acid-resistant wax. The artist scratches an image into the wax. The metal is dipped in acid, which eats into the areas exposed by the scratches. This produces sunken lines that hold the ink. The longer the metal is in the acid bath, the deeper the lines. The printing press pushes the damp paper into the grooves. An impression of the lines is made on the paper.
Similar to etching, the artist scratches directly into it with a sharp object instead of using acid to eat away at the metal. The lines produced are called “burrs,” and they collect the ink.
Planographic prints are made on a completely flat surface. The image and non-image are not separated by height. This is in contrast to the Intaglio prints, which have grooves to hold the ink, and the Relief prints, where the image is higher than the surface.
This process relies on the chemical repellence of oil and water. The main planographic printing techniques are:
- Offset lithography
The term Lithography comes from the Greek words for “stone” (lithos) and “to write” (graphein).
In classical lithography, the artist draws an image with a greasy pencil or crayon onto a stone slab. The greasy pencil repels water. The stone is dampened with water, covering the whole slab except the image area( because it repels water). When the stone is inked, only the oily areas (image areas) accept the printing ink, while the water-moistened areas repel it.
The damp paper is placed on the inked plate and run through a press. The ink adheres to the image and is transferred to the paper.
Offset lithography is a modern variation of the technique. An offset reproduction is done using:
- A photograph
- Some aluminum
- A big rubber roller
- A lot of shiny paper
Offset reproduction is the method of choice for commercial reproducing artworks because you can print off many of them cheaply.
Here is how it works. First, the reproducer takes a photograph of the artwork. Then, said producer separates the work onto four aluminum plates where a rubber roller runs over them, taking a transfer of the work.
Finally, the roller lays down (offsets) the work onto paper. Once the aluminum plates have been made, offsetting the image to paper can go pretty quickly. You can imagine why this is a favored process for commercial reproduction.
Most commercial reproductions have pluses and minuses. Pluses: They show off the main characteristics of the painting quite well. You can even distinguish an oil painting from a watercolor reproduction. Minuses: They have little texture and show a pattern of dots when magnified up to 20 times.
One of the best ways to make a reproduction is to use a method called giclée (pronounced “she-clay” with more of a “g” sound).
Giclée involves a computer and a specialized inkjet printer and can produce high-quality results. It works like this.
The reproducer loads an image of the artwork onto a computer and can then print the image out onto different materials, such as canvas or photographic paper. Depending on the reproducer’s technology, the results can be stunning, in some cases nearly indistinguishable from the original.
Commercial printing companies will not favor this reproduction method. More likely, you will find this used by artists themselves working today. Prices can be higher because they have to pay for the equipment somehow.
Making a serigraph is similar to a lithograph and can also be favored by commercial reproducers. The process utilizes offsetting, which means the image is transferred (offset) from one medium to another.
But instead of using aluminum plates, the serigraph process uses screens. The photograph of the painting is separated onto screens, which becomes the basis for the roller transfer to paper.
Regarding the role of authenticity or perceived authenticity in value judgments, original pieces can sell for vast sums of money, whereas identical duplicates of those originals are worth substantially less.
Our society thinks about authenticity mostly in terms of the law. If someone copies an idea without giving credit to the original person, their work becomes inauthentic, and its value decreases.
There is news that some of Edward Hopper’s earliest paintings, such as the “Old Ice Pond at Nyack,” are copies. He copied these paintings from a how-to magazine. However, “Old Ice Pond at Nyak” is still being sold for $300,000 or $400,000.
The market value for Edward Hopper’s Old Ice Pond at Nyak is not hurt because artists have learned to paint by copying existing works for centuries.
In another example, Salvador Dali used to visit museums like the Louvre and repaint their masterpieces. Even the old masters had studios and assistants helping them produce works.
Authenticity is one of the driving forces behind art secured by non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I’ve written about why NFT artwork has value.
A forgery is a copy intended to deceptively pass it off as the original and deceive potential buyers.
Several cases of forgeries have been discovered in the news, such as between two major auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. They released their spring catalogs only to learn that both were selling the same painting, Paul Gaugin’s Vase de Fleurs (Lilas). The two paintings were sent to an expert who identified one as the real Gaugin and the other as a forgery.
However, both paintings were traced back to the same source: Ely Sakhai. As was later revealed by an FBI investigation, Sakhai had purchased several lesser-known paintings by impressionist and post-impressionist artists, such as Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, and Pierre-August Renoir. He then hired skilled forgers to copy the original paintings and would sell the duplicates with the genuine certificate of authenticity attached. Sakhai was caught and sentenced to 4 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $12.5 million.
Limited Availability (held privately, destroyed/lost)
This plays on the concept of scarcity. A limited supply will naturally lead to higher prices.
Some artists, like Banksy, create scarcity of their work by destroying it after it has been sold. In October 2018, a Banksy painting self-destructed moments after being sold at an auction for more than $1 million. The painting, titled “Girl With Balloon,” was one of the artist’s most iconic images, and its destruction added to its allure.
Another way an artwork can become scarce is if it’s held in a private collection and not made available to the public.
Limited or Numbered Editions
Some artists release their work in limited editions, meaning that only a certain number of prints or copies are available. It also plays on the concept of scarcity – if only a limited number of copies are available, then naturally, the price of each copy will go up.
Also, the death of an artist can lead to a rise in the value of their work. This is most likely because there will not be any more new works from that artist, making the existing ones more valuable.