In my previous post, I outlined the different ways to edition your work as a photographer. There are several ways to structure your editions and I ended the piece by saying that it’s most important that you decide what your edition structure will look like so that you can effectively communicate that to your collectors when they purchase your work.
Legal and Ethical Implications
There are other facets to this conversation, legally and ethically. It is best illustrated by a controversy sparked in 2013 by the famous artist, William Eggleston. When the “Father of Modern Color Photography” decided to join Gagosian, he catapulted his long career from the world of art photography to the world of contemporary art. In that move, Eggleston issued a brand new edition of his iconic images. The original edition, or the “vintage” prints were created in the 1970’s and were in a limited edition of 6, sized 16″ x 20″ and printed using the dye transfer process. The new edition consists of much larger inkjet prints (44″ x 60″) in editions of two.
In the creation of this new edition and subsequent sale directly at auction at Christie’s, earning $5.9 million dollars, an upset Eggleston collector of the original vintage prints sued Eggleston. Here is the legal details of the controversy: The original dye transfer prints were numbered and signed by Eggleston. The collector was not able to prove to the court that the fact that the vintage edition contained numbers (2/6) constituted a promise by the artist to never create another edition of the same work in a different size or using a different process. NY statutory provisions only provide for purchasers of a new edition to be notified of the existence of a previous edition. Whereas, the creation of the original vintage edition does not guarantee to buyers that no new editions will be created in the future. In fact, the artist maintains the copyright over the work and can do whatever the artist likes with the images. The collector is only buying the right to display, which is transferable to another owner if the piece is sold. In this case, the argument that the new edition devalued the original also didn’t fly. The judge stated that it’s likely the Christie’s sale increased the value of his original prints.
Consider Your Edition Strategy
Where you, as the artist, land on this issue is certainly personal. Is it unfair to your collectors to create a new edition after the first is sold? Is it unfair to you to never create another edition and continue to bring in revenue for your work? When an artist is starting their career, the work is priced lower and increases with time and advancement of their career. The money that is made on that early print only happens in the secondary market and the artist never benefits from that increased resale value.
This brings me back to my original post where I said that talking explicitly about this with your collectors is important. You will avoid misunderstandings and potential lawsuits by collectors if you are clear about your edition philosophy. In this case the law was on the side of the artist.
Also published on Medium.