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This month's topic...
Edition Size and Labeling
The earliest prints were not sequentially or otherwise numbered. The printing of an engraved block or etched plate (matrix) simply carried on until the matrix wore out. With the discovery of electroplating in early 19C metal plates were given an even longer printing run, since the softness and fragility of the copper plate took on extended life through steel-facing. There is an obvious built-in rarity factor to the earliest printed works from the C16 (know as INCANABULA) where, for instance, an Albrecht Duerer etching can achieve over US$1million at auction.
With today's modern contemporary artworks, anything above an edition size of 250 (plus the usual E.A.'s and H.C.'s, see below). tends to effect the perceived exclusivity/ rarity value. As some artists issue multiple editions on different papers, effectively disguising the true edition size for a specific image, it is important to know as much as possible about the full printing history of the work you are buying. This information is often available in the official authorized catalogue of the artist, or CATALOGUE RAISONNAIE , an indispensable reference book which is available in most good libraries. (See also, PROVENANCE.)
E.A. or EPREUVE D'ARTISTE, equivalent to A.P. or ARTIST'S PROOF, originally denoted trial or test proofs - early pulls of an image in the experimental or fine-tuning phases. Nowadays it is usually just a labeling device that represents a certain small percentage (ideally 5% or under) of the total edition. The E.A. run can also have its own consecutive numbering system, often distinguished by Roman Numerals. In general, these have no extra commercial value over and above the total run, except in the case where it is obviously a true TRIAL PROOF and differs from the total edition in either color or technique…. a true collector's bonanza.
Another kind of TRIAL PROOF is the STATE PROOF or ETAT, which is the image "in process". Rembrandt and Degas loved the "process", and made long and historically famous series of reworked images until they managed to overshoot their B.A.T. (good for printing "goal") and the etched lines in the plate simply collapsed. There is a tremendous immediacy and excitement in witnessing the artist at work in STATE PROOFS, and any stage along the creative path can command impressive prices. STATE PROOFS are not usually signed as they were never intended for distribution.
A CAUTION: Often buyers are convinced at point of sale that the E.A. or A.P. has a "special value" within the series. This is never the case, (unless there are special written notations in the artist's own hand, such as a dedication). Nor does the image 1/100 have a higher market value than, say, 53/100 or 99/100 - these are studio assigned numbers only and never represent any kind of organized privilege of sequence, which would be logistically impossible in any printing workshop. The only time numbering sequence could make a difference is in the case of a woodcut which can deteriorate with use, or a copper plate impression (especially dry-point) which has not been steel-faced.
H.C. or HORS COMMERCE means "outside of commerce", and like E.A., it is just a way to designate a certain portion of the total edition size apart from the mainstream numbering, generally restricted to less than 10%. Originally these were meant not for public distribution, but set aside for the personal use of the artist as gifts to those who were special or deserving: e.g. the printer, the publisher, the distributor, his wife, his mistress…
There is no special "collector value" to an H.C. unless it is accompanied by a personal note of thanks or dedication. In fact an H.C. (in particular those by certain "target" artists such as Miro, Chagall, Dali) should often be approached with CAUTION as this is the labeling chosen most frequently by forgers. (i.e. H.C.'s are not consecutively numbered and are therefore difficult to "track"; E.A. often is numbered, so is more of a forger's risk). In a doubtful situation, knowledge of a reliable PROVENANCE (the picture's history of ownership or stewardship) serves to protect the collector.
Another highly collectible image is the HAND-SIGNED print designated B.A.T., meaning BON A TIRER or GOOD FOR PRINTING. This represents the final version of the coloration and the "feel" of the artist's concept, and is the actual working model against which the whole printing run will be compared and measured.