Are Prints from Numbered Editions More Valuable than Those from Unnumbered Editions?
The answer depends on when the print was produced, who the artist was, and whether the print is an original print or a later reproduction of an artist’s work. An original print is defined as a print coming directly from the plate (or other matrix) that the artist created. Etchings, lithographs, and woodblock prints are common examples of original prints.
Artists often number each print in an edition with numbers like 4/25 …. meaning 4 of 25 … which communicates the edition size and therefore the rarity of the print. This numbering convention began in the 19th century and became common over the course of the 20th century. So many 19th century and early 20th century prints are not numbered, even if they are original prints and rare. These unnumbered prints can be worth a lot.
When artist’s number their editions, they typically also have a smaller set of artist’s proofs and a few publisher’s proofs. Artist’s proofs and publisher proofs are often numbered, usually differently than the standard edition, but sometimes they are not numbered. Artist’s proofs are usually worth more than the larger standard edition, even if the artist’s proof is unnumbered and the standard edition is numbered. (There may also be trial proofs, where the artist has a few copies of a work printed at different stages of creation to see how the work is developing.)
But be careful. Later reproductions of famous prints are also not numbered. Dishonest dealers may try to pass these off as unnumbered artist’s proofs. Paper type and size and printing technique will help you tell whether you have, for example, an original Picasso artist’s proof etching, or a later offset print reproduction of that work. Some publishers or dealers or sellers may also add numbers to mass-produced reproductions to give them a sense of “authenticity” and rarity. These are usually large edition sizes (such as 300, 500, 1000, etc.), much larger than edition sizes for artist’s original numbered editions.
So it is wise to understand the edition from which a numbered or unnumbered print comes. Ask who printed it and when. Did it come from the original plates/matrix? Who numbered it? The wiser you are about an artist and their work, the better chance you have of acquiring a print that has greater value.