PRINT April 1963

The Problem of the “Original Print”

ON A RECENT VISIT to a local gallery advertising works of art for “elegant homes and prestige offices,” it became apparent that the problem of the signed reproduction still exists in the art world, despite several notable efforts to eradicate it. A framed picture, signed by Picasso, was propped against the wall, surrounded by a wealth of prints, drawings, and paintings by other notables such as Braque, Chagall, Klee, and Kandinsky. From a distance of ten feet (and considering its illustrious companions) the Picasso seemed an impressive multicolored still life. After closer observation and discussion with the gallery owner, this signed Picasso was found to be, in actuality, a lithographed reproduction of one of his paintings. The price was two hundred dollars.

There are in Europe, with Paris as the hub, a number of printing establishments that specialize in making excellent color reproductions of paintings and drawings by well-known artists. The procedure, briefly, is this: An artist of stature send a painting or drawing to such an establishment where a staff artist copies the original work on a lithograph stone. A huge edition, usually several thousand, is printed on inexpensive paper, marketed in department stores, bookstores, and the like, and sold as reproductions, usually for no more than fifteen dollars apiece. Sometimes, however, a special edition of, say, five hundred is printed on heavy, more expensive paper. By agreement with the artist (and for a handsome fee), this group of five hundred impressions is sent to him to be signed and numbered as a limited edition. These signed impressions are sold by gallery owners and print dealers for several hundred dollars each. Based on the fact that the same picture, without the signature, could be purchased in a bookstore for around ten dollars, the unsuspecting buyer is, in actuality, paying one hundred dollars for a signature. This seems a bit expensive.

The tragedy of the situation is that it is being perpetuated largely through the ignorance of the art-buying public. If would-be collectors would themselves take the time to become knowledgeable, or seek the advice of some other informed person, the practice of selling reproductions as original prints would die a welcomed death. But this is too much to hope for as long as the pseudo-collector seeks an impressive signature instead of artistic quality, and wants nothing more than a status symbol to hang in his elegant living room or prestige office.

The practice of marketing signed reproductions is not illegal, only, in the opinion of many, unethical. Lacking recourse through legal channels, those who object to this practice have sought to voice their opinions in art magazines and newspapers. Jean Bardiot has published a series of articles entitled “The Scandal of the ‘Original’ Print” in the French periodical Finance. In New York, The Print Council of America has defined a set of standards in the booklet “What Is An Original Print?” Art critics, curators, and historians have taken up the cause as it becomes increasingly apparent that the way to halt this practice is through informing the public of its existence.

To those who are aware of what constitutes a fine print and what separates it from a reproduction, the following brief summary will seem needlessly elementary. However, there are obviously some who don’t know, since the Picasso “print” that prompted this article was marked “Sold.”

A fine print is just as much an “original” work of art as is an oil painting, a drawing, or a piece of sculpture. This is sometimes difficult to grasp because many impressions may exist of the print, whereas the oil painting or drawing is unique. To clarify this cloudy situation the term “multi-original” has been coined and applied to the fine print. Just as a sculptor can make multiple bronze castings from a single mold with each casting being equally original, so the printmaker can produce an edition of many prints with each sharing the originality equally.

What, then, separates the fine print from the reproduction, since both exist in multiple form and both are printed. The difference is quite obvious when one is dealing with, say, a photochemical reproduction of the “Mona Lisa.” Besides the fact that everyone knows of its uniqueness, a quick glance at the reproduction through a magnifying glass would reveal the printed surface to be made up of a multitude of dots of uniform size and shape, much the same as the photogravure pictures in the newspaper. The difficulty in defining the difference between a fine print and a reproduction involves the occasional use of a fine-print medium reproductively. The distinction between the two concerns the intent of the artist but is vague, at best. The medium of lithography will serve as an example. Serious artists who work in the medium of lithography do so because the medium appeals to them as a vehicle for esthetic expression; and, if they also happen to be good artists, they exploit those characteristics of lithography which make it different from all other media. Most important, the artist himself puts the image on the stone; someone else may do the printing, but the creation of the image is entirely his. When the medium is used reproductively, say, to copy an oil painting, the unique qualities of lithography are denied. To manipulate lithography to resemble oil painting (complete to the last brush stroke) is to prostitute the medium. Even this would be tolerable if deception were not involved. One assumes a signature to mean “this is my creation”; but the fact is that in such signed reproductions, the hand of the artist appears only in the signature.

That the unknowing art collector suffers from this practice is obvious because he is often paying as much as one thousand per cent of the actual value (disregarding the signature, which, no matter how impressive, doesn’t make the print an original). But others suffer too. Because the art market becomes flooded with these pseudo-prints, the value of all prints (whether fine or reproductive) drops. A more serious result than the financial blow is its demoralizing effect on the serious fine-print maker who respects his medium, and the gallery owners and print dealers who prize respect, integrity, and reputation. And what of the concept of art as a means of expressing the highest ideals of man? This definition is difficult to maintain when art sinks to the level of commercialism and cash profit at the expense of quality and integrity.

Virginia Allen is currently curator of prints at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, and was formerly with the Print Department of the Philadelphia Art Museum.