Getting to grips with art print margin lettering
If those letters in the (usually!) lower left corner of a print margin baffle you, this is a good way to spend the next three minutes! They each denote something irresistible to print collectors, or devotees of a particular artist.
With a limited edition the number of the print from the total in the print run is shown as, say 33/50, for the 33rd impression of fifty total authorised reprints. With screen prints the artist often experimented with different colourways and there could be a run of say, 20, for each colourway. So if the artist tried 4 colourways and printed 20 of each, then 80 versions would exist but each colourway would be marked as "x"/20.
A side note about etchings:
If you are looking at an etching the numbers and/or letters denote the same as other types of prints, and are the number of impressions pressed from the plate of that image...an etching is deemed as original if you can see and feel the indentation surrounding the image from where the paper went under the press against the metal plate which bore the etched image. These are "plate marks". If there is no surrounding indented plate mark on an etching, then you are looking at a printed reproduction, not an actual etching or engraving impressed onto paper from the original plate. Those indentations have a large value implication.
Back to prints:
But what if there are letters? Well, letters are an upgrade on just numbers! So, here we go -
A/P if the one most often seen: Artist's Proof. Before high quality digital printing came along, the first few impressions of a print were the best and were offered to the artist for both a) approval, and b) for them to retain themselves if they wished. Not all A/P's would be approved by the artist as the final version. This level of "special" makes them prized. These days we have printing methods which mean every print in a run is the same quality but it is still the norm for the artist to be given the first few to mark as proofs for themselves. If an artist did their own printing / screen printing, then their first one or two would be kept as the best proofs. If there is a number with the A/P mark, it tells you how many artist's proofs there were of that image i.e. AP12 or AP/12 would mean there were 12 proofs made of that image before the edition was fully run.
H/C "Hors Commerce" - some artist's proofs were available via their gallery representatives or other re-sale outlet. However, prints marked H/C were only available direct from the actual artist. The translation means "without sale" or "out of trade". They would only be released by the actual artist, often as a gift to someone. These are highly prized as their rarity exceeds an artist's proof.
P/P Printer's Proof - again, a rarity. They were presented by the artist to their printer (or perhaps their publisher) for them to keep. Again a number with them indicated how many printer's proofs there were of that run. On a value level these are roughly guided the same as an artist's proof.
BAT is the rarest you will find. French : "bon a tirer", there would only be one of these in any print run as it is the version the artist authorises the printer to use as the desired perfect print.
So, the next time you gaze at the pencil notations in the margin area of a print, it is a nice buy if the total number of prints in the edition are under 100 (the less the better), or if there are some of those magical letters! Enjoy...take your magnifying glass when you next go browsing!