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T is a great pity because a thing is beautiful, or at least meant to represent art, that it has to be rigidly restricted in production in order to sell it. For myself I would not be bothered by the knowledge that a picture in my possession which gives me aesthetic satisfaction is one of two copies or one of a million. But that is a state of mind not to be encouraged in the buying public.
There is a limit to the quantity of prints which can be disposed of profitably to all concerned. It would be more to one's interest to sell say ten prints at $50.00 each than one hundred at $5.00 or five hundred at $1.00. It is about as much work to find buyers for $1.00 prints as $10.00 ones. Dealers generally do not care to bother with them when priced under $5.00.
An edition of proofs from a woodblock is the whole number of satisfactory prints made from it, regardless of whether they were printed at one session or in installments. There is no regulation as to the size of an edition. Probable sales would determine that. It may run from a few dozen to several hundred proofs. Fifty appears to be about the average size. The technique is to number the prints in the order in which they were pulled. Because of the likelihood of overlooking some defect in only the casual glance one can bestow on them in the process of printing, they may be numbered temporarily. Then later, when one's eye is fresher, the impressions may be compared with each other, the poor ones thrown out and the edition numbered permanently.
The numbering racket is a late development. Prints must not only be numbered, but some people insist (they may be prospective purchasers) upon the size of the edition being indicated on each print. Thus, in an edition of forty-five prints, No. 5 would show as #5/45; No. 43 as #43/45.
Of course, once the size of the edition is determined and made public it should not be increased under any circumstances; it is decidedly unethical. It is the practice among lithograph print-makers to announce that the stones from which their editions have been pulled have been ground down so that no more prints of the subject can be made. For the same reason etchers cancel or else destroy their plates. To grind off a design from a lithographic stone is a painless matter, for it has no particular charm which may not be found in the proof. But a woodblock is usually more intriguing than an impression from it, and to destroy it becomes a painful matter. Blocks from which the editions have been pulled could be bruised or mashed somewhat with a hammer to destroy their printing value, or they might be filled with white paint - after the inked surface has dried thoroughly. Used woodblocks have become collectors' items, and any person will accept them as gifts.
There seems to be a notion that a limitless edition of prints can be pulled from a block. Quite a few prints can - depending on the wood used, the hardness of the paper, and the amount of pressure that was used in printing. I have put a pine block out of business before thirty good impressions were pulled. Then again, after getting hardly more than fifty impressions good enough to sign, with perhaps twenty-five culls, an end-grain maple block looked battered enough to go to the scrap pile; it was done for.
On the other hand, and assuming quantity to be a wickedness to be abhorred, the commercial antagonist of the medium will point out that an electrotype - or still worse - a number of them could be made from the woodblock, each of which would produce thousands upon thousands of impressions, without appreciable signs of wear, each impression equally as good as the next one. At the same time the notion prevails that the nature of an etched plate is such that not many more than a hundred, if that many, good impressions can be pulled from it. As a matter of fact, one can print quite endlessly from a copper plate by the simple expedient of having it 'steel-faced' - an electrolytic process. Whenever the plate shows signs of wear the entire coating can be removed by putting the plate on the positive electrode in an iron bath, and then on the negative, for a fresh deposit of iron - ad infinitum.
There is not a picture in any of the arts that cannot be counterfeited so well as to fool the experts. It merely has to be made worth while to the counterfeiter. A great many people have been taken in by spurious copies of works of art - etchings, early woodcuts, paintings, etc. I see nothing to get excited about in a thing like that. Any person who lays out a fancy price for a faked piece of ancient art, the original of which has no relation to modern life, and who neglects contemporary art - deserves a good trimming. When an object has been so well forged that experts are deceived, it makes the world that much richer to have so good a duplicate - assuming the original to be really a work of art.
The moral is for the public to buy prints as they are issued - before forgery becomes profitable.