Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Size Matters...Sobel v. Eggleston: Limited Editions Go to Court

William Eggleston is one of the most renowned photographers alive, probably one of the very best that ever lived. You can see a lot of his work here [Link]. Recently, the Eggleston Trust issued new limited edition prints of earlier work in unusually large sizes and inkjet prints. They did extremely well at market, exceeding auction estimates by over 2X [Link], generating almost $6,000,000 in sales. Johnathan Sobel, a veteran Eggleston collector, was one of many who were annoyed about the release of the larger size works, and filed suit against the photographer in a U.S. District Court, accusing him of devaluing his vintage dye transfer prints by selling new, large-scale pigment prints of many of his iconic works.

There are two things here at play. First, limited editions in the art world, regardless of what one may think about them, are limited by size and medium. In other words, if you make a limited edition of 16x20" prints, you can make another limited edition of 44x60" prints, as the Eggleston Trust did. Or in this case, one edition is not only bigger, but an inkjet instead of a dye transfer.

Second, Sobel's lawyers will have to prove that his earlier smaller prints have fallen in price, and that is simply not the case at this time.

If Sobel were to win, hundreds, if not thousands of lawsuits could follow, as Eggleston is hardly the first artist to do this.

I've followed Eggleston's work since it introduction in 1976 at MOMA. In the next 5 years or so, I expect it to rise 1.7x to 3x in value. Same with his out of print books.

--- Luis


  1. Yes, size matters, as every girl knows. But, if Eggleston wanted to make different sizes, he should have made them simultaneously, so there was full disclosure to collectors. If you want the ability to make unlimited copies, don't take the additional upfront money that limited editions provide by virtue of their being limited. Don't blame the collector on this one. Why would anyone pay a substantial sum of money for a work of art if an infinite number could be produced?
    Making a work bigger does not make it a different image. It just makes it bigger. It's all about the image. If you want a different medium, try painting or sculpting a tricycle. Don't try reprinting the same one you voluntarily agreed to limit decades ago.
    Has anyone actually heard the artist explain the process he used to make these reprints, and why he chose to do it? I've seen quotes from his gallerist, auction house, and children. However, I haven't seen any recent interviews with Eggleston himself. Is Bill still the one driving the process, or has he unwittingly become part of the art market's commercial machine? Are his children or others seeking to generate profits for themselves while he is still alive under the pretenses that the artist approved these reprints?

  2. Again, for many decades, in the art world, a limited edition has meant by size and medium. Painting is no exception, where giclee prints are commonly made and sold of one-of-a-kind paintings. Sobel is going to have a very hard time proving devaluation of his prints, which are rapidly increasing in value, and I am willing to bet will be 1.7x to 3+x times what they are worth now in 5 yrs or less. We will see how this is decided. I am not taking anyone's side, just my direct experience in these matters of what standard practice is an has been.

  3. It is common knowledge Eggleston has not made any of his own color prints, though he has been involved with the printing and is very attentive to nuance and personally approves them. As to he and/or his family making money, there is nothing wrong with that. He hasn't given any interviews and has shunned media attention for some time.

  4. With photography, there is no natural limit on the number of prints that can be produced from a negative or digital file. In contrast with some other print-making processes, each print will be identical to the first. The prints have to be made unique by some extrinsic process, such as numbering. Indeed, with evolving technology and technique, a new edition using a different technique or material may be an improvement on the first edition.

    It will be better received by dealers and collectors for the photographer to limit his/her editions, to have a small number of examples in each edition, to number the photos within an edition, and not to issue multiple editions, or at least to do the later editions in a different size, using different materials, or presented in a different way.

    Just because somebody would like you to conduct yourself in a certain way does not mean you have an ethical or legal obligation to act that way. In the absence of a contract or law stating what "limited edition" means, photographers can define that term in any way that is reasonable, and that can be a way that suits themselves rather than grumpy dealers and collectors. I don't believe there is anything legally or ethically preventing a photographer from issuing as many editions of his work as he wishes, and for each of those editions to be "limited", or not. An edition can be "limited" in the sense that it consists of a defined number of examples, each of which is numbered, not in the sense that there cannot subsequent editions. This is how it works with books, for example, which can go through multiple editions, each with multiple printings.

    It is a bad marketing for photographers to do things which reduce the value of works which they have already sold. A photographer who does that may find it harder to sell his work in the future. But I don't see how any Eggleston collector can be aggrieved by how the value of their "investments" has evolved.