Parisian gallerist Pierre-Alain Challier extols the appeal of limited edition art, an age-old process that offers value and accessibility into a highly competitive buying market
The process of creating editions of works of art has existed for centuries, from Albrecht Dürer’s engravings to bronze reproductions of classical sculpture by masters such as Rodin.
Pierre Alain-Challier has been a leading proponent of limited edition art, also known as multiples, for almost a decade. Challier’s career began as creative director with the Paris-based gallery, auction house and bookseller Artcurial. When Artcurial’s multiple department closed in 2006, Challier took the plunge to forge his own gallery, designed by Christophe Pillet and located in the heart of the Marais district. Today, Galerie Pierre-Alain Challier collaborates with artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, as well as emerging names in art and design, to create limited edition series.
Your career selling multiples began at Artcurial, which at the time had a section dedicated to multiples. Could you tell us about how this began at Artcurial?
In June 1975, Artcurial opened on Avenue Matignon. It was the first gallery that finally had no competitors; it was unique in that it had a venture totally dedicated to multiples. It showed contemporary works and it had a big art bookshop – the first in France –
specializing in art where one could order books from around the world. At the time it was extraordinary.
It is thanks to L’Oreal that Artcurial was created, particularly to François Dalle and Guy Landon – his number two at the company and a very intellectual and secret character. Landon was the first to send employees to attend conferences on art history – all this to "make shampoo". Their vision allowed Artcurial to become such a powerful company. The concept of the original company was truly textbook; they had this vision to create a gallery that was new and different, based on the theme of multiples. They asked well-known artists to create pieces exclusively for the gallery in limited edition runs. The first artist to participate in this adventure was Sonia Delaunay.
How far back can multiples be traced?
Actually, in a certain way, multiples have always existed, if we consider that Dürur made engravings. Every artist, even during the Renaissance, made engravings. It was a way to spread an image, to make their work known during a period where the number of connoisseurs was obviously more limited. This was one way to do a multiple but just one way of creating a multiple, when in the Greek islands they were building small statuettes or sculptures. Was it a way of spreading art, and were we calling it art at this time? There are a lot of questions if we look at it through the eyes of today, as we don’t know how art was considered then. What was new in the twentieth century was what we developed during the 19th century through bronzes and the reproduction of small statuettes.
During that period, we reproduced many famous things, it’s like how we have famous antique statues, and there was a decorative style, which was completely different. What was new in the 20th century, especially the 1960s to 70s, was that we developed the multiple idea much more, because we understood the importance. In a world where everything is reproducible, with the invention of computers and printers, what was the last thing to do? It is important to make clearer distinctions.
We used traditional techniques to emphasize some original works. It’s here that Pierre Soulages did amazing embossing. It was still within the realm of multiple but each work was actually an original and there were never two works exactly the same. This was not a business model; it arose more out of pleasure.
So would you say that this was a way of democratizing art – not to create mass appeal, but rather to bring attention to their work?
Not really. Embossing was a luxury way of making multiples at this time, because each one was unique. There was the development of a lot of factories, in France especially, where some are still embossing to this day. It is interesting to see American artists such as Jimmy Stein, who does all of his embossing in Paris.
Who were early pioneers?
Jacques Putman was one of the first to bring the idea of democratizing art, bringing engravings to public attention. He had this amazing idea of selling the works of Bram van Velde or Pierre Alechinsky in the French supermarket chain, Monoprix. At the time, I think they sold for something like 100 francs – a very affordable price. The idea of selling art in a supermarket was very unusual then.
The multiple has flourished overseas, however, it is slightly rejected in France, why is this?
Sometimes I meet buyers who fall in love with an object at first sight. When they ask the price they are almost surprised because it’s not so expensive, but when I tell them that there are 30 numbered editions, they say no because they don’t want it if it is a multiple. Their reaction is very surprising, it’s as if I told them it is a forgery. It is really funny – there is almost a reaction of gravity when I tell them. We like the idea that a work of art is unique, almost divine, we want to know how it was made, like it was something that fell from the sky. It has to appeal to a technique.
What kind of challenges does the “multiple market” face?
It is regulated for VAT (tax) purposes, because there is a law, called the “law of Rodin”. At the time, when Rodin produced his bronzes he did not number them, so there came a time when we did not know at what point we could or could not continue to reproduce these works.
We need to stick with numbering; it is for this that this law was made. We consider a photograph original if it is only edited to 30 copies, or a bronze is original to eight examples plus four artist proofs. To be considered a multiple, it must be signed and numbered, while to be an original, the artist must be involved in the process from the beginning to end. If it is made in Bangkok, or somewhere where the artist is not present, it is considered merely a reproduction, and is considered too far removed to be the artist’s work.
What advice would you give to someone investing in multiples?
Buy what pleases. The best thing is to enter a gallery or an exhibition and try to free yourself of the concern that it is a multiple. Firstly, go to the thing that you like, and then, maybe within this selection there may be a multiple. After, of course, you need to be reassured – this is normal. Look to see if there is a number on it, it must also have the signature of the artist and the best thing is if you have a certificate of authenticity from the vendor.
Which are the most affordable pieces in your gallery?
A Man Ray, for example could cost around 3,500 Euros today, although we currently have nothing at this price on the market. We have some folded metal works, small original works in a series of eight, costing from 2,500-3,000 Euros. I also have some small statuettes by Lucio Fontana for 4,500 Euros. I like the idea of keeping it accessible, so that those with a buyer with a good eye and a bit of curiosity can say to themselves: “That’s very good for 1,000 Euros, I can treat myself because maybe in three, five or ten years, I may not be able to”. You won’t be able to get the same piece from a multiple of ten. Many people regret not buying a piece after, because they are multiples and they think that they are limitless. There’s a certain time to think about it, but sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment.
Galerie Pierre-Alain Challier - 8 rue Debelleyme 75003 Paris T. +33 (0) 1 49 96 63 00