What does the word edition mean & how is it used?

By Published by
What does the word edition mean & how is it used?
. Views . Comments Comment . 10 Votes

The first, most important thing to know about editions is:

The Smaller the Edition, the More Valuable the Items in it.

The second most important thing to know about editions is:

The Lower the Number of Your Item, the More Valuable it is.


An "edition" is an issuance of items that are exactly the same; most people are familiar with the use of the word in reference to books, as in "first edition."  It is first a term that comes from printmaking, in original, signed prints classified as "fine art," as opposed to commercial art, and a term used by sculptors who mold and produce, for example, bronze castings from a clay or wax model, in editions of 5 or 10.  By extension, the printmaking term "edition" is used in the printing of books and the sculptural term "edition" (also "casting") is applied to the production porcelains and ceramics (both hand-thrown and cast/mold-made) and upscale dolls, also mold made.

The word "edition" is used in reference to books, to hand-pulled prints (lithograph, serigraph, woodblock, etching and engraving), to sculpture, ceramics, and to high-end specially produced dolls.  Franklin Mint also, for example, uses the word "edition" to refer to each newly-issued product, as do commercial printing companies of what is loosely termed "fine art prints."

First dealt with is the use of "edition" in fine art: prints, sculpture, and ceramics

Books, I will leave to book experts, though a general discussion will be included.

When you see the term "fine art print," it is not used they way artists, printmakers, would prefer to see the term used, as it should apply to editions of 250 at most (though a lithograph can go up to 1000 prints and was an older mode of mass producing images until it was replaced by offset lithography, the process by which posters are made today) -- prints that are made on an original lithography stone, silkscreen, ethcing or engraving plate, or woodblock, and hand-inked and hand pulled in a studio.  It is difficult, then, to distinguish between an actual "fine art print" and a commercially-produced "fine-art print" which is made through a machine printing process, offset lithography (which may become in time an "old world technology" replaced by digital printing . . . .), in large numbers and are closer to being posters than fine art prints.

That said, there is no universal term for a real fine art print, though using hand-pulled to describe those human studio processes is a fairly good descriptor.

eBay distinguishes these prints as Prints > Limited Edition > Original

The categories of prints (I'm dealing only with prints from the last 150 years) that eBay uses are

  • Art > Prints > Contemporary 
    1. Limited Edition > Original
    2. Limited Edition > Giclee and Iris
  • Art > Prints > Contemporary
    1. Open Edition

"Limited Edition," is used to signify a smaller edition of an item usually produced in larger numbers and is generally not used in the world of printmaking, as it is a commercial term and what eBay terms Original Prints are, by nature, always limited editions, usually ranging in number anywhere from 10 to 125, depending on the process.  Original lithographs, by their nature, lend themselves to larger editions, as the process originated as a commercial method before the days of mechanized offset printing.  The posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were printed using lithographs.  Today, the larger editions, 1000 - 2500 are produced in Lithography Ateliers / Studios / Artists' Print Shops in which the artist himself does not do the actual physical labor of grinding the stone, etching the stone, inking the stone, and running it through the press. In a large lithography studio, the press will also be electric, though the sponging, inking, and placement of paper and "blanket" on the paper will be done by skilled master printers, usually artists themselves who have studied printmaking in a university and/or with a master printer.  When an artist himself (and I use the generic "he" not to exclude women on the basis of the female pronoun but to include women artists -- us -- in this very strenuous physical art process that suggests a masculine pronoun), yes, when an artist himself grinds the stone, does the drawing on the stone, etches it and prepares it for printing, gets it over onto the bed of the press, sponges it and inks it, then lays the paper over it, all the while not getting fingerprints on the paper, then blankets it and levers the printer bar down over the stone and cranks it through manually, maintaining an even speed, you have a truly original print.  Naturally,  these are not to be found in editions of even 500.  These editions are usually 50 at the most.

When an edition of anything is numbered, the size of the edition (the number of items in it) is given below a slash and the number of that particular one of the edition is given above the slash; thus item #1 out of an edition of 3500 would be written as 1/3500; item #25 out of an edition of 100 would be written as 25/100; item #7 out of an edition of 25 would be written 7/25 and so on.

The smaller the edition number, the more valuable the edition; the lower the number of the individual print (the upper number), the more valuable the print for a simple reason: the printing surface begins to break down under repeated pressure of the press (or squegee, in the case of serigraphs or silkscreen prints; or barin in the case of woodblock/woodcut prints -- though presses do exist for these as well, the use of which would contribute to the original woodblock/woodcut breaking down more rapidly)

In an edition of 3500, the upper number -- the number of that print -- is not as important as in a smaller edition, as with 3500 prints, chances are that it is a commercially produced print not in the "original" category, which means that all items will be mechanically uniform.  Any printing defects or variations in this sort of an edition would then be more valuable than the others -- like a postage stamp printed upside down.

Consider also if the print is a black and white or a one-color print.  This takes one trip through the press -- one trip being the process just described once the stone is on the press bed.  One can pull an edition of 50 uniform prints with care: some will be rejected.  If an artist starts out with 50 sheets of (exactly the same size and kind of) paper for the edition and 12 for his proofs, he will not finish with 50 numbered prints and 12 Artist's proofs.  Some proofs will be just that -- things that just are not quite up to snuff.  The first (hopefully) ten prints, then, will be the Artist's Proofs and will be numbered separately.  These are the most valuable, because the stone, (screen, plate, woodblock, or linoleum block) will be at its most fresh; this is assuming that the artist has used other paper for the first few prints that go to priming the stone, making sure it is saturated with ink and will be consistent throughout: those are just "proofs," which check for quality preliminary to the print run.  Artist's Proofs are numbered with Roman Numerals and the words Artist's Proof or A.P.  For example, with ten Artist's Proofs, the first would be numbered, under the image, in the center of the 1/2" margin between the matt and the image, A.P. I/X; the second, A.P. II/X; the third, A.P. III/X; and so on, through the ninth and tenth, A.P. IX/X and A.P. X/X respectively.

In the case of a print with more than one color, the same process is repeated for each color (specialty split-roller printing can be done also, in which two colors are printed on two parts of the block, as in the masterful Japanese Woodcuts of the 1700 - 1800s): a separate block, stone, screen, or plate is prepared for each color and the whole process is repeated, on the same piece of paper.  The more colors in a print, the more mistakes are possible, so this hypothetical edition of 50 may, in the process of printing may dwindle to 45 with the second color, due to registration problems (registration is the process of lining up the paper to make sure the colors print in the right place).  With three colors (or two colors and black with the white of the paper), it may dwindle down to 40.  Generally speaking, a good printmaker can make the most of the use of three plates/stones/screens/blocks -- two colors with black -- by carefully preparing the stone, plate, block, or screen to give different values (light and dark) of all three, utilizing pattern, and, most importantly, overlaying the colors to produce a third (or more).

It is not uncommon to start with 25 and finish with only 10.  In cases such as this, the blocks or plates may be used again to produce a second edition, which would be indicated by the Roman Numeral II after the title of the print and numbered the same way.  A lithograph usually does not have a I and a II because the same stone is used and each image is ground off of the stone to make way for the next.  This is true of silkscreens as well.  However, the last to be printed and the one which gives definition to the whole is the one that prints the black or dark brown or dark blue, so prints can be made in different versions with the use of this key stone, substituting other new ones for the lost images. Some images etched on liltho stones from the poster lithographs of the late 1800's still exist and are produced in this way.

Traditionally, when an artist is finished printing all he will print from a plate or block or stone (if the image has not been ground off), he will scratch across the surface so it cannot be printed again, in order to protect the integrity of his product and still have the original plate for sentimental or reference value -- "posterity."  After an artist's death, these "struck plates" sometimes find their way into the hands of  printing companies, art dealers, what have you, and are then printed as the artist's product.  These are known as "restrikes," and do not have the special energy of the artist who printed them in them, though they are an affordable way to own a print by the artist's hand in a manner of speaking.  They can become valuable somewhere many years down the road because of natural attrition.

In printmaking, your (silk)screen begins to fill; your woodblock begins to break down (after 25 prints on pine, more for harder wood); your engraving begins to break down (the lines fill in with repeated pressure from the press); your stone begins to fill (although lithography can withstand the largest number of prints from a single image).  Because of the natural deterioration, the prints closest to the end of the edition may be less clear than those at the beginning or before the middle.  However, this is not a cause for huge concern: the reason that editions have a beginning, middle, and end is to preserve the uniform quality of the prints produced.  Printmakers will not always print a plate until the lines close up; they may stop at an edition of 25:  it's a lot of hard work, inking each plate, retrieving the wet paper, soaked and kept moist to just the right degree, taking it to the press, blanketing it, and pulling it through, removing the paper, careful not to get fingerprints on it (though fingerprints to the outermost edges of the paper, assuming the paper is a full sheet for whatever size the image may be, can happen and do add the personal artist's touch: you know it was not made in a print shop with an inker, a paper-carrier, and a press-runner, two of whom will not have ink on their hands).

The problem of plates, blocks, stones, screens losing quality toward the end of an edition is accounted for in printmaking and a printmaker will end his/her edition before this begins to occur. Striking an image: When an artist ends an edition from a single screen, woodblock, metal plate, or lithographic stone, he will "strike" it -- scratch a diagonal line across the image to render it useless. Sikscreens may be saved for further printing in commercial work, like t-shirts, for example. An artist's image on a silkscreen, especially if hand printed by the artist, will be dissolved off of the screen to make way for a new image, so the edition is finished at whatever number the artist has printed. SIlkscreen prints can go up to 250 without losing much quality, though an artist doing his/her own printing will rarely print an edition that large. Woodblock prints will break down fairly quickly if run through a press, less quickly if done in the traditional method of rubbing the back of the paper by hand with a barin. Wood engravings, done on the end grain of the wood are smaller images and larger editions due to the quality/hardness of the wood. Mahogany is a wonderful wood for woodcuts (and wood engravings), as it will hold up through a large number of prints, as it is very hard; however, it is also very difficult to carve. When an image printed from a block of wood is finished, the artist will run one of his/her carving tools across it in a diagonal slash to indicate that all printing from that block is finished. This is what keeps the value of limited editions/ smaller editions printed by the artist him/herself. A lithograph stone is scratched across in a similar manner to strike the image; the stones may be around for a good long time, although most are ground down to accept a new image, as the fine Bavarian limestone is a finite resource -- most of it is out in lithographic studios around the world, and the same stones are used over and over, ground down after each image. Last, the metal plates from which engravings and etchings are printed have usually been printed to their maximum before being struck. The artist runs an engraving tool diagonally across the image, destroying it. Because the metal plates stay around and are not reused, it is those images that one most frequently finds in "restrike editions," made without the artist's authorization and contrary to his/her indication that no more are to be printed. That's one reason small editions are inherently more valuable.  Prints pulled after an artist's death (or divorce, if the ex gets the plates), which are not authorized and/or supervised by the artist are of far less value, though the accessibility factor is something to consider: one can buy an inexpensive example of an artist's work that does have something of the hand of that artist in it -- he/she produced the plate/block/stone image -- and has an individual value for the person buying it to have something of the artist's presence in his/her home.  These unauthorized posthumous prints are most often restrikes: the artist has "struck" the plate: in the case of a metal plate, he/she has taken an engraving tool and made a diagonal "strike" across the image, to indicate that he/she has made all the prints possible from that plate (or stone or block).  Restrikes then, are less valuable and fall into the category of images printed from a plate/block/stone which has deteriorated, broken down through the printing process.

Salvador Dalí is another story all together: he signed masses of blank sheets of paper while he was alive -- one of his wife Gala's revenue schemes: to sell signed full sheets of blank paper to a printer -- so that prints could be made with his signature after his death.  That is the reason why so many signed Salvadore Dalí prints turn up in commercial art warehouses at affordable prices.   For that reason also, it is nearly impossible to know how many of what exist when it comes to his work.

"edition" used in doll production:

Here I should seguey into mass produced dolls like Barbies and baby dolls, for example, produced in large numbers, who knows how many, for children to play with -- playline dolls.  Natural attrition is what brings these up in value.  Dolls and toys that start out not too expensively rise in value simply because so many are totally destroyed in the hands of their young owners and 50 years later, when a nostalgia for an old toy comes, one in even good played-with condition has a value, a sentimental value, a novelty value (and I mean "novelty" in the purest and kindest sense), a posterity and historical value by its uniqueness: the fewer there are, the more valuable they are, plain and simple.  It doesn't matter if hundreds of thousands were produced worldwide.  Their very number made them "valueless," so they were not treated with precious care and hundreds of thousands of them did not survive the next ten years.  The older they are, the fewer they are, which is why the Antique Market thrives; the more common it is when new, the more likely it is to be destroyed, lost, given away, forgotten, used up.

These early dolls were not produced in editions and certainly not in numbered editions.  Only after the old ones became collectable did Mattel start issuing specialty dolls in editions, and they are distinguished in price and number by a color tag or box (more later, from my Barbie Collector Seasonal Brocheure).  The smaller the edition, of course, the higher the price. 

The Bratz manufacturer has also begun to issue collector packs -- dolls with several outfits and accessories or in a larger size (the 24" Bratz).  These are in editions of over 10,000; obviously they are not going to be hand-painted; they have, as do all large factory-runs of dolls from large manufacturers, screened or stencilled features rather than hand-painted ones, and here is where value differences in editions in the doll world begin to diverge from editions of prints. 

Smaller companies with smaller runs of dolls -- say under 1000; to be safe, for the purposes of discussion, a limit of 500 -- can afford to make limited numbered editions and, in fact, it is more cost-effective to do so.  In these smaller numbered editions, the facial features are painted by hand, individually.  It gives each doll a one-of-a-kind look, as each will have small differences from another (and actually, decaled or stenciled or screened dolls have small variations as well).

Here is where the value of the numbered doll in the edition will differ from prints in editions.  In printmaking, the image begins to break down after a certain number, so the earlier in the edition, the more valuable is the print.  With dolls, this is a matter of personal preference.  Dolls are a form of sculpture, and molds can begin to break down, though commercial molds are as hardy as can be, so waaaaaay down the line, some deterioration may be seen, though doubtful.  The variations that will be seen in dolls are in the application of the features, the face paint, the hair, the set of the eyes (if not painted eyes), the application of eyelashes, the nail polish: all of this is done by hand, by individuals.  You will see the same phenomenon also in ceramics (not the huge production places, but where everything is painted by hand without a stencil): individual variations occur from painter to painter, though all are skilled at reproducing a uniformly invariable stroke and placement.  Nonetheless, this is an art, and the beauty of art is in seeing the individual hand in the object, that that hand cannot be eradicated.

Visualize now, say ten painters painting 50 dolls each, or 5 painters painting 100 dolls each -- depending on the time available for production.  The first few will be like Proofs: the first prints that check for registration, that are a part of the full inking process, getting the plate/block/stone/screen primed and ready to go.  The first 5 or 10 will have the most care put into them and may have more individual quirks; the next ten will be careful and uniform; after that, one may have it down to a system and be cranking them out with ease and regularity.  At the end, comes quality control: prints that are not up to the uniform quality will be trashed, put aside, pinned on the wall -- not signed, at any rate.  The same is true with dolls: a few will be experimental -- proofs checked over for any placement or color problems.  Then the first five or ten -- of each painter -- will be careful and may show more hesitation in the brush.  As the workday progresses, the painters become faster and more sure -- slicker -- with the painting of the facial features.

It is an individual preference as to whether you want a more uniform doll -- one of the slicker ones -- or a quirkier one.  My personal preference is for dolls early on in the edition, as they have more life to them, more character.

How the dolls coming out of a hand-painting production are numbered is not certain, though it could be assumed that the first five from five different painters or ten different painters would comprise the first 25 - 50 of the edition; there is no certain way to ascribe a first, second, third to the dolls made in this way, as there is in prints, though it can be a general guideline to the placement of numbering within a small manufactured edition.

With dolls also there is the concept of an open edition: an individual dollmaker, for example, may develop a mold and cast his/her doll parts him/herself.  He/she may make, for example, parts for five dolls and then assemble, paint, and dress the dolls -- and can easily number them 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and they would have to be written as

#1 of an open edition of "Name of Doll" from the studio of [name of artist]


#1 in an open edition of "Name of Doll" from the studio of [name of artist]

for clarity.  If the artist plans to make 25 of the dolls, for example, he/she may call it an open limited edition and write:

#1 in an open edition of 25 of "Name of Doll" from the studio of [name of artist]


#1 in an open limited edition of 25 of "Name of Doll" from the studio of [name of artist]

though this second statement begins to be confusing.  Just saying "an open edition of 25" is enough to say it is limited to 25.

On my doll sweaters, I have an open limited edition, though the limit is not set.  For example, I have "The Chinchilla," "The Paris," "The Rita," etc., and each one receives a number; the third one made from my pattern and materials for "The Paris" is  "#3 in a limited edition".

That about covers the use of the word "edition" and takes us back to the general rule of thumb:

The smaller the edition, the more valuable the individual piece.

The earlier in the edition, the more valuable the individual piece (and with dolls, that is something to be determined by personal preference). 

. . . and open editions will be a series of items with more individual variety within them, though each is from the same mold or pattern, as they are made individually by one person -- and creative people are always "trying something," however small it may be. 


12/16/07 -- I'll be back for some proofreading and revisions . . . .


I can see right now that this will need to be divided into separate guides for books, prints, dolls, and collectibles, with cross-links from each to the others in the case of interest in other multiples; however, by focusing on the printmaking process, the process of producing and numbering Limited Editions in other media becomes easier to understand; more importantly, the size and value of individual pieces within editions becomes much clearer and easier to apply without an appraiser.  I'm all about making sure that people have not just the knowledge but the tools and confidence to apply that knowledge to making their own evaluations.


The term "open edition" refers to items that have been produced and which may continue to be produced as long as there is a market for them -- i.e. production depends on demand.  One might expect that these would be smaller numbers in total -- it just depends on what the item is and how it is produced.  The items might be numbered singly without an edition total or they might be labeled "open edition" or they might not be marked at all.  You might find this in, for example, ceramics -- which are bulky to store and susceptible to damage; you might find it in, say, folk-art rag dolls, all made from the same pattern and fabric as they sell out.

The first thing to know about the value of an edition is the size of the edition.  The smaller the number of items in an edition, the more valuable each one is.  For example, first editions of books are often printed in smaller quantities.  Dividing this down even further, a first run first edition of a book would be issued in a smaller number, as the publisher would not be sure if it would sell or not.  That is what makes those "First Edition, First Printing" books more valuable.  The same edition may have several printings if it takes off, and each printing is stated on the copyright page.  When a book is issued as a second edition, some changes may have been made -- errors corrected, an afterword added, review commentaries added, the bookcover changed, the typeset (typeface) changed, the paper changed, the ink changed: any one of those changes would make it a different edition (similar to a dye lot in yarn or thread).  The number of books in any given edition can be found by researching the publisher's archives; it is not usually written in the book.

Special editions of books can be produced in numbered editions and these usually have special features like using actual typeset (in which each metal letter is mounted separately on a wooden backing and is set by hand) on fine paper -- "the old-fashioned way" -- or have specially printed illustrations, hand-colored illustrations or other human touches.  These naturally would not be issued in large numbers, as they are more difficult to produce and are, thus, more valuable due to their limited number.



Commercially produced items -- books, "fine art prints" and other "collectibles" -- often exist in editions of over 10,000.

. . . . . to be continued

First of all, the smaller the number of items in an edition, represented by the number below a slash mark, the more valuable each single item is.  Second, in general, the lower the number of the individual item, represented by the top of the two numbers, the more valuable it is.   It is used in the field of art referring to print runs and sculpture castings.  By extension, it is used in high-end specially produced dolls.



... "limited edition" items advertised in Sunday Newspaper and Supermarket checkout shelf magazines are another story entirely.

Explore More
Choose a template