Dangers of Buying Woodblock Prints Online

Dangers of Buying Woodblock Prints Online

In assembling our collection prints, I have come across a multitude of dangers. Here is a list of warnings for you when buying a woodblock print.

  1. Authenticity of date: It is very possible that the print you are buying is not an "original" that is a print that was made at the time the artist was alive. Many woodblocks were purchased and reprinted by various publishers over the years. So the first printing may have been done in 1852. Then because the series was popular it was reprinted in 1854 by a different publisher and again in 1862, then possibly the woodblocks had to be recarved and reprinted in 1890, and 1920, and 1941, you get the picture. The best way to know if your print is authentic or not is by the publisher’s seal - since there are usually records as to which publisher owned the rights to print a woodblock and when. If you are not familiar with the publisher seals, then you need to find an expert or get a guidebook.

  2. Authenticity of artist: Since there were so many woodblock artists and popular themes, it is easy for novices like myself to confuse one artist with another. I have purchased prints that have the wrong title, artist and date in the description.

  3. Print quality: There is a print quality grading system but often you are dependent on the seller to interpret that system. This leads to an inflation of print quality in the written description. I put a list of print quality grading at the end of this article.

  4. Buying prints in frames: It is really hard to tell print quality if it is in a frame. If there is a matte around the print you can't tell if it has been trimmed or has rips outside the visible area. It is also harder to make out holes, discolorations, and other issues through the glass. I have purchased several prints that were completely glued to boards within the frames. People also use tape and other methods to attach prints to the matts, this tape is sometimes impossible to remove.

  5. Prints with backing: Many print owners pasted and glued their prints into albums. This backing is almost impossible to remove and the glue often discolors the print.

  6. Prints that have been trimmed/cut: The organized Japanese liked to keep their prints in albums. Many times the albums were too small to fit the print paper so the edges were trimmed. Since most prints have a nice black border the prints were often trimmed to that border line. Unfortunately this reduces the value of the print because it destroys the original format and publishers marks and other text were often placed outside the print border. Prints were also sewn into albums. These prints have holes or tears where they were attached.

Below are images of some of the glued, taped, foxed, and damaged prints I've purchased.

examples of problems with woodblock prints

Because ukiyo-e prints were mass-produced, collecting them presents considerations different from the collecting of paintings. There is wide variation in the condition, rarity, cost, and quality of extant prints. Prints may have stains, foxing, wormholes, tears, creases, or dogmarks, the colours may have faded, or they may have been retouched. Carvers may have altered the colours or composition of prints that went through multiple editions. When cut after printing, the paper may have been trimmed within the margin.

Woodblock print quality grading:

  • Fine: As near to pristine as possible; sharp impression with unbroken lines; unfaded color probably unchanged from the day the colors were printed; unblemished condition. Ukiyo-e prints in "fine" condition are quite uncommon even in museum collections (especially 18th C. ukiyo-e) and the term should be used for specimens only in the very best or most remarkable states of preservation.

  • Very Good: Only very slight changes from the original state; impression still sharp and showing no obvious wear from the block; color very close to unfaded with only a slight diminution of hue intensities, where even the fugitive ukiyo-e colors of the 18th century (like the blues, reds, and purples) would be preserved close to their original color; condition barely changed with very minor defects such as very slight soil at the edges.

  • Good: Some noticeable changes from the original state; impression good but showing some wear; color loss evident although some hues might still be well preserved; organic purple (often a mixture of red and blue) typically faded to reddish-brown, blue to bluish gray, red to pale red or rose, green to blue; condition shows some slight soil or minor creasing, wormage only minor; toning minimal where paper only slightly darker than the unchanged paper color.

  • Moderately Good: Significant changes from original state, but still the overall condition retains some aspects of original quality; wear in keyblock lines & registration of colors sometimes off; colors all faded to some extent, with the most fugitive colors very faded (blue now gray, purple now light brown or tan); soiling, toning, and creasing obvious and beginning to affect overall appearance of print.

  • Fair: Substantial changes from original state; impression shows wear throughout in line quality or in color registration and saturation; colors mostly faded with only weak partial color still remaining; soiling, toning, and creasing detracts noticeably from overall appearance of print.

  • Poor: Excessively changed from original state; worn out block produced weakened keyblock lines or poor color registration; colors mostly or completely faded; substantial soiling, toning, and creasing.

In conclusion, try to avoid buying prints online, especially prints in frames. Ebay and some online estate auction houses have a higher potential for issues. If you are dealing with a reputable online dealers - like I try to do, then that's one of the best options. Of course the optimal way is to see the print in person before purchase. If that's not possible, then high resolution images of the front and back of the unframed print will probably do.

Here's a couple of links to helpful information.



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