Posted by Dave Bull at 10:25 AM, April 30, 2009
When I was preparing to produce my Hanga Treasure Chest a few years ago, I haunted the auctions of woodblock prints on eBay, looking for interesting items to include in the set. Since then, I haven't been much of a print buyer, and given that 'bargains' seem to have become very thin on the ground on eBay these days, I haven't bothered much with it.
But plenty of my friends are active over there, and one of them sent me an email the other day, letting me know that some of my own prints were being auctioned. Or I should say, 'have been auctioned'. Here's a snapshot of a listing of 'completed auctions' done on a search of my name:
This was really interesting to see, for a couple of reasons.
First is that the price paid for the prints from my current 'My Solitudes' series is almost exactly double what I myself sell them for. Given that I myself don't sell them individually, but only in the complete set of 12, this price presumably reflects the 'premium' that the purchaser is willing to pay to have just one from the set.
I get frequent requests for 'just one, please', but always regretfully decline. I make roughly the same quantity of prints for each one in the series, and if I started selling the 'favourites', I would end up doing nothing but re-printing endlessly.
(Eventually, at some point in the future, when my own 'batch' (I want to avoid using the word 'edition') is all sold out, the designs will presumably be used in my Mokuhankan publishing venture, as single designs. One day.)
Another point of interest (and regret!) was that the seller hasn't included the books. I guess he has tossed those aside, just pulling the prints out for sale. That stings a bit, but I guess I can't complain; obviously the main interest is in the print, and not the story. (But I don't dare tell Ichikawa-san, the part-timer who does all the bookbinding for me, about this!)
I know who the seller is, and in fact, he has written to me recently asking to purchase some more copies. I have to decide what to do about his request. I was talking about this with my daughter last night (on Skype video) and her advice was clear and direct. "Dad! You do it! Start putting them up on eBay one by one, and you get the profit!"
But there is no way I can do that. I put the series on the market as a subscription set, and to try and 'burn both ends of the candle' and get revenue from single sales also, seems kind of unethical to me. A newspaper can sell both by subscription and at the news-stand (for higher prices for the single copies of course), but I don't think my situation is equivalent. (I should mention that I'm not upset or angry about what the seller is doing; he is of course perfectly at liberty to do whatever he wishes with the prints he purchases from me. Nothing 'unethical' at his end ...)
Anyway, it's kind of a moot point, because as I said, I make a roughly equivalent number of each print, and I really don't want to break up the sets. Once I'm done, I'll be able to count up my stock, and will then have some prints 'left over', as the numbers never work out exactly evenly.
In fact, this is exactly what is happening soon with the Hanga Treasure Chest. I'm now down to the final dozen sets or so left in stock, so will soon be doing such an inventory check. The 'odds and ends' that remain could/should be sold individually I guess. (And as there is no way that I myself can reprint the series, I suppose those blocks too, should be moved over to Mokuhankan, for 'outside' printing and inclusion in that catalogue.)
All in all, seeing these prints of mine appear on eBay is perhaps a bit gratifying. I never make any kind of claim to my collectors that their prints are an 'investment', and I really dislike such thinking. But I guess they won't be too heartbroken to see these prices! :~)
[Edit: I just realized that the eBay search image above only shows completed auctions. If you search for other prints with my name, it seems there are some still available. Get over there and run up those prices!]
That is an interesting development, the eBay sales, and for many reasons, one of which is the private prediction I made with myself concerning your work, Dave. In a world that is increasingly placing a premium on fine hand-crafted pieces of contemporary art, the first surprise is that it took so long to occur. It's not surprising that they are being re-sold, but it definitely brings some issues into focus.
I think that anyone who would appreciate the quality of the print would also appreciate the quality of the book as well, at least I hope so. The stories, the traditional binding, the material which gives context to the print itself, and that physically protects it. Do you know for sure that the books are not sold with the prints? If not, then this is slightly shy of criminal, and becomes a central issue.
I know that the buyer has full rights as you say to do as he pleases, but if the books are discarded, this is the act of a philistine. If It is the case, there may be no better argument for numbering them as editions, both book and enclosed print. As an owner of your work, I love the work numbered or not, but the breaking up of the whole becomes a matter of respect. If it was purely about the dollar value and nothing else, why would you take the time and effort to produce the books at all, have them printed, beautifully bound etc.? Why not just jack the price of the print a bit and sell them as is? The books themselves are limited and hand-made, so it's not quite the same as people cutting lithos out of old mass-produced books for decoration.
Can you really not mind that the work that floats around in the world after you are done is treated this way (assuming that they are separated)? If, as the creator of the work, you don't care what happens after they leave your hands, would you mind if they were cut up and used as fragments in collage? What if they were used as coasters, or folded and employed as bookmarks? I don't mean to suggest that it's practical or even desirable to care about each individual piece or anything like it, of course that's absurd. But defining a little further along the line of understanding how you feel about them may bring a more practical way of viewing them for the artist as well as the buyer.
I personally feel that some of your work must inevitably exist in numbered editions. It's quite something to think that they are not two years old and have sold for double the price you asked for them, and un-numbered! Obviously this is a barometer of perceived value for secondary buyers.
Is it an indication that your work is attaining a life outside of how you originally planned to present it? Are the prints gathering qualities to themselves independent of your intent to 'frame' them in a certain way? I think yes to both questions.
You yourself have made claims that the amount of time involved to create this work is not necessarily to be quantified, or monetized by unit in order to 'maximize' or 'minimize' anything. Whatever the piece at hand requires will be done in order to produce the best possible print, end of story. You work with traditional methodology, but you are designer, block carver, printer and publisher all at the same time.
If it is most desirable to have a collector buy a piece because she likes it, then you expect her to make an emotional investment. Whether or not the piece appreciates monetarily may become increasingly out your hands, numbered or not.
Your daughter may be right, though presumably the reason you started the great and valuable website that you have was to control the marketing of your work in the first place. I suppose it's a quandary for you, but with positive and perhaps less positive aspects?
Congratulations, I think.
I know that the buyer has full rights as you say to do as he pleases, but if the books are discarded, this is the act of a philistine.
I should update this a bit ... I've spoken to the seller, and we cleared up a couple of things. He had thought - based on something I wrote to him - that he would be able to pick up extra copies of the prints to replace ones that he sold. So he had (and has) no intention of 'tossing' the books, but will care for them properly.
So no lynching party, please! :-)
I personally feel that some of your work must inevitably exist in numbered editions.
Well, there is no way that I am ever going to number them, but as I wrote on this page, I am giving more thought and care to the edition documentation these days, with consideration for the concerns of serious collectors.
... to control the marketing of your work in the first place. I suppose it's a quandary for you, but with positive and perhaps less positive aspects?
Well, 'control' is kind of the wrong word here, I think. Of course I control the marketing in the sense that I've made decisions about how to sell the prints (subscriptions, etc.), but this isn't with any attempt to try and keep things held closely, or to try and control the after-market, etc. I'm just trying to make a living at this, and the subscription model has worked (quite) well for me for a couple of decades now. So I myself am in no hurry to upset things ... Whether or not this method will continue indefinitely, remains to be seen.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments ...
David, aren't the other two prints that were sold on eBay from the Poets series? If so, they sold for a good price did they not? Perhaps I should watch eBay more carefully...;-)
Yes, there has been a steady stream of the poets' prints coming up on eBay, for a long time now.
A few years back, I was surprised to see in one of the catalogues from the Kanda dealers, a batch of 60+ prints from that series. It seems that one of my 'full-set' collectors (or more likely, their inheritor) had brought a complete set of 100 in for disposal. The shop bought it, cherry-picked the popular ones for sale in their shop, then dumped the rest as a batch. The price came out to just around $20 each. That eBay seller took a flyer on it, and since then, has been putting them up for auction one by one.
Some of them go without selling, some run up into the hundreds of $s. He'll certainly get his money back, and plus, but it's going to take him quite some time ...
I consider that a little bit of a tragedy, the 'inheritor' or someone else (maybe a jilted lover or ex-wife, just to keep the poetry in the act) bringing them away to sell into the cruel world. I may be being a bit over-wrought, but I can easily take the emotional viewpoint with regard to the prints themselves: they are expertly, and yes, lovingly created using exeedingly rare traditional technique. They are imbued with energy. They are decidedly not common mass-produced images, and while they are surely, after all, simply images on paper, they are also so much more. If the act of making an image can be considered an act of worship, and I know you know I don't mean that in a general, generic sense, then the depth of information and respectful adherence to tradition creates a unique sort of record of all aspects of the process of creating Japanese woodblock prints. I feel for those wayward prints, separated from an owner who bought them because of an emotional connection. I hope they find good homes.