Prints and Reproductions

Original Prints and Reproductions –
A Need for Definition

Mark Graver

(First published in Artists Alliance Magazine NZ # 76 Feb – Mar 2006)


Enter ‘Artists Prints’ into Google and, even when limited to NZ pages, 105,000 examples appear. Of these the vast majority are sites selling ‘Fine Art Prints’, posters and ‘canvas prints’. Similarly many local galleries and craft shops will often have on display ‘Limited Edition Artists Prints’ and, the new favourite, Giclee. In magazines and newspapers ‘Limited Edition Prints’ are regularly for sale. But should we really be allowing the use of the term ‘Artists Print’ when applied to these works? Are they not merely reproductions or copies of other works?

What, you may ask, is the problem? When I approached one such dealer in ‘Fine Prints’ in the course of researching this article I was told I was ‘fighting a losing battle’ in terms of trying to educate the public, and that ‘the terms art print and art reproduction, even poster are seen as pretty much interchangeable by the general public’

And it is exactly here that the problem is revealed. There is confusion with the terms artists print, original print, reproduction etc. Definitions need to be in place and supported by agreed regulations. It is an issue of protection, for the consumer as well as the artist and basic philosophical and ethical issues need to be considered.

This definition of an original print was prepared by the Canadian Artists Representation and recently published in
Printmaking Today (Vol 14, No.3)

An original print is “an image that has been conceived by an artist as a print and executed solely as a print in a limited number under his or her artistic control. Each print in the edition is an original, printed from a plate, stone, screen, block, or other matrix created for that purpose. There is no one original print from which copies were made. Each is inked and pulled individually; it is a multi-original medium. The unique qualities of each matrix influence the nature of the images created by the artist. Regardless of the technology used, an original print is conceived and executed as a print, not as a reproduction of work in another medium”

The issue here is not the process but the intent. A Giclee (a fancy name for Inkjet from the French gicler to squirt) can be as much an original print as an etching or wood cut, it depends on the artist’s motive.

There is a long history of definitions relating to prints. ‘In 1960 the Print Council of America published ‘What Is an Original Print?’ It allowed only prints for which the artist designed and created the matrix, permitting electric tools and even photographic techniques but no copyist – though others could print with the artist’s supervision. This principle was contained in the 1960 resolution of the UNESCO artists’ organization’.

Various laws exist throughout the world in relation to prints to protect both the artist and the consumer. ‘In the USA retailers of art multiples in California must supply a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ which must state the artist’s name; whether the artist signed the piece or if the signature was mechanically reproduced; the technique and materials employed; the production date; the authorized size of the signed edition; the number of unsigned or numbered multiples; total multiples including proofs and whether the matrix was cancelled after printing.’ And in New York, article #15 of the state’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law requires similar documentation when multiples are sold for over US$100. This documentation is required to state whether the multiple is a ‘reproduction’.

In Hawaii there has been a Sale of Fine Prints Act since 1986 and in Britain there is a BSI classification of prints (British Standard Institute BS 7876 1996 was copyrighted so anyone wanting to show it to customers has to pay a fee so the guidelines while excellent are rarely seen!) The Australian tax department once ruled that an edition of over 100 was not a work of art and was therefore subject to sales tax. Though this has since been abolished the 100 print limit seems to continue as a benchmark of perceived quality.

I asked The Ministry for Culture and Heritage if they knew of any regulations or legislation in place within New Zealand regarding artists prints or multiples but it seems there is none.

The problem here is not with reproductions per se but with the terms being applied to and associated with them – of course they are printed and therefore prints in one form but the appropriation of Fine Art Print, Art Print and Limited Edition (particularly when they are often open editions or numbered in the 1000’s) is spurious. Printmakers need to push for a recognised policy of print documentation and to take back the traditional classifications that have been usurped and abused by a marketplace free of standards and regulations.