CLAYTON ON ART: Want to buy a print?

By Alec Clayton on November 6, 2012


Years ago my wife and I stopped in a Gig Harbor gallery where I saw photo-reproductions of paintings printed on canvas and sold as original art. You can find the same kind of thing in big art sales set up in parking lots or at places such as Fred Meyers and Target.

Guess what, folks, this ain't art.

You can also buy a print of Picasso's "Don Quixote" for $14.99 or Salvador Dali's "The City of Drawers" for $31.99 from

No kidding.

Guess what, folks, that ain't art either. Well gee, you might say, it looks just as good as the original. If you say that you must be blind. But what the heck. If it makes you happy, go ahead and spend your money.

There are legitimate prints of fine art that are actually worth prices in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. These are etchings, lithographs, silk screens or other original prints that are created by the artist, printed in a limited edition by the artist or under the artist's supervision, and signed and numbered. There may be hundreds or even thousands of copies of original but limited-edition prints and they can sell for much less than an original painting; yet, if they are signed and numbered they are considered original works of art - and they are a boon to artists and collectors alike.

If it's not signed and numbered you can be sure it is worthless. If it is a so-called print of a famous painting, then it's not a print; it's a photographic reproduction and it is worth precisely the cost of the paper or canvas it's printed on and nothing more. Although, the frame may be valuable. The giveaway that the painting in the Gig Harbor gallery was not real was that it had heavy brushstrokes but not real texture other than the weave of the canvas. Such reproductions are to art what laminate is to hardwood flooring.

If the dealer is trying to pass off a reproduction as original art it is sometimes hard to tell. Your best bet is to buy from a reputable gallery and ask about the authenticity.

To further muddy the already murky waters, we now have giclée prints on the market. Giclée is a relatively new method of high-quality inkjet printing that has been embraced by artists as a way to sell their work to people who can't afford originals. They are more akin to legitimate artists' prints than are the cheap photo-reproductions sold in low-end department stores, and lots of respectable artists sell their work as giclée prints. That's fine so long as they are honest about what they are selling.

I just found the website that specializes in selling giclées on paper or canvas for prices ranging from $45 to around a thousand dollars. The samples I looked at, by-the-way, were atrocious. They claim their prints are "genuine giclees (sic) guaranteed to last longer then (sic) the original paintings and photographs. Most of them are released as Limited Editions, signed and numbered by the artists themselves, and come with a Certificate of Authenticity." On the same page they called them "reproductions." Guess what, folks, they have to be either prints of reproductions; they can't be both (technically they are prints because they are printed, but according to the accepted definition of a fine art print they are not). And how can we trust the so-called numbering to be accurate when they have the image in their computers and can print out as many as they can sell?

Personally, I am intrigued by the possibility of giclées. I can photograph one of my paintings, take it to a printer and have a giclée made and sell it to someone who can't afford the original. The buyer is happy and so am I, and the reproduction looks almost as good as the original. I checked with a local print shop that does giclées and the man at the print shop said it's done all the time and the artists typically charge three times what it cost them to have the print made. The artist pays, say, $50 to have the print made and sells it to the buyer for $150, which is a good deal for any work of art.

I think that's a legitimate business practice, but how do they number them? Traditionally prints are numbered 1/150, 2/150 and so forth, that last number being the total number of prints in the run, and they destroy the etching plate or lithograph stone so no more can be made. But giclée are printed from digital photos and there is no limit to how many can be made.

Buyer beware. Ask about what you're getting, and to play it safe buy from local galleries or artists and not big box stores, and beware of online stores.