Question: Can you tell me something about the fact that [the print in which I'm interested] is one of the artist’s proofs? Does that mean that because it isn’t numbered it is of less value than the rest of the edition? -Judith C.
Response: Most of Picasso’s prints were released in editions of 50, with a small number (usually 5 to 20) artist’s proofs. An edition of 50 would be numbered 1/50 to 50/50 by a hand other than Picasso’s. Whereas the artist’s proofs bore no numbers, they were usually inscribed with the words “epreuve d’artiste”, also by another hand.
There are certainly no hard and fast rules about the relative value of artist’s proofs. Some dealers will accord a 10% premium to numbered prints because of their customers’ preferences. I’ve, however, met many dealers and collectors who don’t assign any differential valuation to numbered and unnumbered prints.
Some dealers will tell you that artist’s proofs are more valuable because those are the ones the artist kept for himself, and the artist could be expected to have kept the best for himself. Others will tell you that Picasso handled and scrutinized his proofs more than the numbered edition. Apart from the claim that the artist’s proofs are therefore more valuable, which they’re not, at least on theoretical grounds, these dealers’ contentions may be true, but they don’t add up to much. The exception to the rule is the singular case in each edition of the “bon à tirer” print, in which that “ready to print” designation is in fact inscribed by the artist’s own hand and lends significant added value to the print.
As a practical matter, however, artist’s proofs are usually more desirable than the typical numbered print because they’re in better condition. Having been kept by Picasso throughout his life and then often much longer by his estate, or having been kept by the printers or publishers, the artist’s proofs were much more likely to have escaped the ravages of the elements and of non-archival matting and glazing, and are thus likely to be in much better shape than the numbered proofs. Many have spent their lives in the dark, as underprivileged as a veal, and have only just seen the light of day. Therefore, at least prior to inspection, my preference always leans toward an artist’s proof.
A corollary question to that posed by the reader is the relative value of differently numbered proofs, i.e., is number 1 better than number 50? You might think that the impression of the print numbered 1 might be better than the last one numbered. It however isn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, the vast majority of Picasso’s intaglio prints were steel-faced (a process in which the relatively soft copper plate is hardened by plating it with steel). As such, one would expect no differences in the quality of the first and last impression in an edition of fifty or even, in the case of the Vollard Suite, an edition of, say, 325. Secondly, as my friend and fellow art dealer, Emanuel Silberstein, himself a former printer, has pointed out, since the prints are stacked as they exit the printing press, the last one printed is, if anything, more likely to be the first one numbered.