Swann FAQ: What Is an Edition?

Among the items that Swann auctions are books, fine art prints, photographs, posters and maps–all of which have their own definition of the word “edition.” When it comes to prints, the word can be misunderstood, our Prints & Drawings department offers this explanation.

Editioned prints comprise the majority of material offered in Swann’s Prints & Drawings department. Each individual print is known as an impression, and each is printed from the same matrix, be it a copper plate, lithographic stone or other device upon which the artist has incised the image. These prints often have a pencil signature in the margin, along with a notation or numbering. The numbers represent the edition size, with the bottom number being the total number of prints in the edition and the top number indicating which number it is in the series.

Impressions from a single edition are generally printed on uniform paper with uniform signatures and numbering. Information on edition sizes, paper types and annotations are included in an artist’s catalogue raisonné–which is a comprehensive listing of all known works by an artist. 

Pablo Picasso’s lithograph L’Ecuyère was published in editions of 200 and 1000. This print is from the smaller edition.

Some prints are published in more than one edition, such as Pablo Picasso’s lithograph L’Ecuyère, and a recent Swann auction illustrates how edition can affect value. In September 2014, we offered two examples of L’Ecuyère. One, from an edition of 1000 that was not hand-signed or numbered, sold for $1,750; while another, from an edition of 200 hand-signed in red crayon and numbered 137/200 in pencil by Picasso, sold for $7,500. So, prints, as multiples, derive their value in part from limited edition sizes.

This Picasso lithograph, Homards et Poissons, is an artist’s proof, aside from an edition of 50. It is signed and inscribed “Epreuve d’artiste” in pencil.

But numbered prints are usually not the only impressions from each addition. Proofs are made that are not counted as part of the edition size. For example, another Picasso lithograph from Swann’s September auction, Homards et Poissons, was signed and inscribed “Epreuve d’artiste” to indicate that it is an artist’s proof aside from the edition of 50. In this case there are five recorded artist’s proofs and two trial proofs, aside from the published edition of 50.

Proofs may be early printings reserved for the artist, printer or publisher, or working proofs made before the plate was completed. They are typically marked with one of the following notations:

B.A.T. – Bon à tirer (good to print), once work on the plate is completed, used as a master impression for the edition
H.C. – Hors de commerce (not for sale), reserved for the publisher
A.P. or E.A. – Artist’s proof or Épreuve d’artiste, reserved for the artist
P.P. – Printer’s proof, reserved for the printer

Keep in mind that the term “edition” mainly applies to modern printmakers, as Old Masters (i.e. Goya and before) did not customarily sign and number their prints.

Related Reading: What is an After Print?