How the Internet Changed Japanese Woodblock Print Collecting
By: Richard Wilk, Indiana University
Based on a paper presented at the conference “Extreme Collecting: Ethnography of the Ordinary,” British Museum, London, 31 January 2008
How has the Internet changed the market for ukiyo–e? I have been collecting prints for 50 years, so I was a keen observer when collecting Japanese prints began to change rapidly at the end of the 20th century. I will try to track some of the ways the Internet has changed the practice of finding, buying and learning about ukiyo-e. My comments are focused on the kinds of prints that I collect, the abundant late Edo period and early Meiji popular prints of Kabuki, mythology and history, rather than the high-priced market for the rare “classic” prints by artists like Utamaro, Harunobu and Koryusai or original surimono. Those prints rarely sell through the Internet, and mostly change hands through private transactions between dealers, collectors and museums.
Classification and Difference in Art
Collecting is never a passive activity; it involves acquiring knowledge about the quality, authenticity and value of objects, and some understanding of the history and culture of the people who made them.
Traditional art-culture system (Clifford 1988) structured common difference in a relatively invisible way, defining the genres of art, the hierarchy of artists, and matters like condition and dividing time into periods. Collectors and dealers develop their “taste” by seeing many objects and learning about their significance and meaning. When publication was expensive and information about objects was hidden away in libraries and reference books, few people had access to the details and knowledge that was needed to collect. Someone in a small town or city might possess rare or exotic objects, but without special training or access to experts, they would not know what they had, how it was related to other similar objects, or its potential market value. For such a person, the path towards becoming a collector could be long and expensive, and they would often end up dependent on a few dealers, scholars or curators.
This restriction of access gave a special power to the gatekeepers of knowledge about objects. The experts decided on names, provenance, authenticity, and all the other trappings of value, and they played a key role in creating markets. Typically, small groups of serious collectors based in major cities built long-term relationships with experts in universities and museums and with dealers. A limited number of “experts” therefore decided how to divide the very diverse world of prints into categories and genres (bijin, landscapes, primitives, etc.) and establish which artists and genres were the best and most valuable.
To be sure, there were more casual forms of collecting, particularly in the “decorative” market and among general art collectors, who might value ukiyo-e because of its connection to French Impressionists in the 19th century. These people might have access to information through newsletters, price lists, auction catalogs and reference books. But all these means were slow, and information always moved from the top to the bottom, from the experts and institutions to the local collectors.
We can think of the world of collecting as having three basic levels. At the top we have the rarest and most valuable contemporary art, antiques and antiquities, Old Master paintings and the rarest jewels and the like, the trappings of great wealth and social status - much of this elite art world is still relatively unchanged by the rise of internet markets. It is possible to place a bid at Sotheby’s over the internet, but personal communications and social relationships with artists, dealers, and curators are still the bedrock of this art system.
At the bottom are collectors of plastic action figures, teaspoons and postcards, matchbooks, toys, everyday ceramics and glassware – the kinds of things people find at swap meets, flea markets, estate sales and yard sales. A lot of this kind of stuff is sold on Ebay and other popular platforms, but the low market value of these objects keeps a lot of them circulating hand to hand, through charity shops and antique stores. The sheer number of objects and their categories has continued to multiply, as manufacturers make ever-more esoteric groups of ‘collectibles,’ but the practice of collecting have not really changed very much because of the internet. People still depend on published market price guides when they are available, and there is plenty of information available on blogs and other sites.
The intermediate categories, in between the mass-produced plastic figures and the Impressionist paintings, is where the explosion of computer-mediated trade has transformed the practice of collecting in radical ways. Most obviously, collectors can see many more objects, learn about and create new categories and trade information, and take part directly in ever-larger markets without going through dealers or other professionals. More subtly, internet art markets have undercut the roles of traditional academic and business authorities, opening up the possibilities for more competition and sharing among collectors. By making it possible for much larger groups of people to collect, exchange, and publish information about objects and material culture, the internet is undercutting and eroding previous forms of expertise, curatorial selection and valuation.
Japanese Woodblock Prints
I found my first Japanese woodblock print (a Hokusai great wave reproduction) in a trash can in New York City in 1970, and took it home as a curiosity, sparking a lifelong interest in Japanese history and culture. These prints were a popular art form in Japan for almost 200 years; hundreds of artists produced thousands of prints each year, which were sold for the equivalent of pennies in unlimited editions. It is hard to estimate the total number produced, but at the peak of their popularity in the early 1800s, hundreds of thousands were sold every year. Most were destroyed in fires or thrown away when they got old, but large numbers survived in collections in Japan and abroad. So far nobody has produced a fully complete catalog for any artist, and the unpredictable size of each edition, as well as the many contemporary and modern reproductions of popular prints, makes market value difficult to gauge.
Much of the print industry revolved around popular Kabuki theater, and many were used like posters to decorate paper-walled interiors. They were ephemera, and a popular collectible of the time. Many modern marketing techniques for collectibles were invented by woodblock print dealers in the 19th century, including issuing limited editions and different quality editions of the same prints, producing numbered print series with each print released on a schedule, special fan editions of a single actor, and prints issued to commemorate seasons, festivals, disasters, battles and other public events. Many ukiyo-e prints were full of folkloric, historical, political and poetic allusions, allowing different levels of connoisseurship and appreciation among different audiences. The genre flourished in the early period of rapid Westernization following the Meiji reforms (1868), by depicting turbulent events of the time in a popular format, but with the advent of lithography, widespread literacy, newspapers and other mass media, the genre was in decline by 1890.1
The world of Japanese print collecting was like many other art genres before the internet. Taking part meant reading the few available books, subscribing to newsletters and catalogs, and making visits to galleries, auctions and dealers in major cities like New York and London. If a dealer judged a customer worthy, he or she might take some time educating them, but it could take many years to acquire the specialized knowledge and taste to know about value and develop skills of collecting. The dealers and curators mostly knew each other, and while they might disagree about the significance of particular artists or have preferences for individual artists or subjects, they all agreed on the basic types of prints and the ranking of artists and periods of production. Early artists and muted colors, for example, were much more valuable than later works which were labeled ‘garish’ and repetitious.’ Landscapes and portraits of beautiful courtesans were more valuable and refined’ than Kabuki actors, historical subjects, or current events.
Furthermore, this art-culture-market system was internationally connected only at the very highest levels. The most expensive prints, the richest collectors and the most prestigious dealers, scholars and curators, moved back and forth between Western countries, and even fewer connected with the Japanese market, or with the limited number of Japanese art historians interested in the genre. Travel costs, language barriers and few interpersonal connections, kept the two ukiyo-e markets apart, allowing dealers to take advantage of the fact that for most of the twentieth century, prints were cheaper and more abundant in Japan. 2
Because avenues for distributing information and prints were limited and hierarchical, the bottom of the market tended to stagnate. Barriers kept all but the most determined collectors out, so for the lower-valued genres, unknown artists, and unpopular subjects, supply far outstripped demand. These abundant prints tended to circulate in what was called the ‘decorator’s market,’ where brightly colored and stereotypical images were framed for wall display (leading to fading and loss of value). For a young and relatively poor collector, the only way to acquire cheap and unusual prints was to haunt estate sales and local auctions in the hope of turning up a treasure.
The largest obstacle for all western collectors of Japanese prints has always been language and culture. Though knowledge about Japan has gradually increased in the west as the country has become more economically powerful, very few western people are willing to go through the arduous process of learning the language or the thousands of characters needed to read it, much less the esoteric archaic scripts and obscure referents which gave meaning to many ukiyo-e prints. This obstacle gave tremendous power to those few experts who could read and interpret the textual elements of prints, and explain the contexts of the images they depicted. While an early generation of western collectors were content to appreciate the prints in the universalizing frame of global fine art (Cuno 2006), scholars and curators kept raising standards of cultural knowledge through the late 20th century, increasingly depicting these objects as key historical artifacts. This put even more of a burden on the neophyte collector and made the tutelage of experts even more important.
The most valuable Japanese woodblock prints have now entered the rarified realm of fine art, where a first-edition Hokusai image from his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji can sell for over a million dollars.3 The traditional network of major and minor dealers remains, including a few specialists in prints and those who also deal in other varieties of Asian art and antiquities. The pace of academic scholarship on the genre has picked up dramatically, and a number of galleries and museums have held popular shows, often centering on the mutual influence between Asian and European art, and the popularity of Japanese prints among Impressionist painters.
But in other respects, the market for ukiyo-e has been transformed, so that today the collecting is much greater in scale and access. By scale I mean the sheer number of people participating, in an expanding number of roles. Participation is truly global, and thousands of images, both electronic and physical, move across national boundaries. The traditional sharp boundaries between roles like scholar, curator and dealer have become blurred as more diverse people participate. Hundreds of collectors and museums have put prints online, giving collectors and scholars unprecedented access to rare genres and artists, so everyone can see different states of the same print, re-assemble large serial editions, and compare prices. Blogs and discussion boards offer venues for discussions at many different levels of expertise, challenges to art authorities, and the voicing of opinions in public that were previously private. A closed world has been thrown open to public view and participation.
Today the largest market for woodblock prints is Ebay; between 2005 and 2012 the number of genuine ukiyo-e prints for sale at any one time went from about 500 to about 1500, before settling back to hover around 1000 after Ebay recently raised listing prices. Ebay is a home for a number of dealers who maintain online stores, some of whom also run online galleries and discussion groups, some buying their stock directly from Japan, while an increasing number of Japanese dealers sell directly to an English-speaking market.
Several independent online auction companies eschew Ebay and run their own regular auctions, usually of higher-priced prints. Some of the major galleries which have sold prints for a long time have opened online portals where they exhibit their collection and sell a part of their stock. Ebay has also provided an opportunity for people who have inherited small collections (often handed down from occupation-era soldiers) to find out how much they are worth and sell them, providing a constant flow of new prints of highly varying quality.
The venues and outlets differ in the amount of information and quality assurance offered to buyers. An Ebay search for “Japanese Prints” pulls up hundreds of reproductions, some old and some new, many deceptively labeled. Some prints are pages from woodblock printed books that have been taken apart. Some sellers have broken up multi-sheet compositions (“diptychs and Triptychs) to sell each sheet individually. Sellers may have no idea what they are offering, while others include biographies of artists, full information on what is depicted in the print including translations of labels and titles, and some evidence of provenance. Some online dealers and independent auctioneers offer very skimpy information about prints, while others include extensive references, biographies of artists, and guides for collectors dealing with everything from repairs to the plots of Kabuki plays. To summarize, the trends in access and scope which have accompanied the internet explosion of ukiyo-e include the following:
- A much broader range of prints and genres are available to buy and view
- More fakes, reproductions, and questionable attributions in the market
- Many new sources of prints from Japan and small, scattered collections
- Static or lower prices for the majority of prints (though prices began to rise in 2020)
- Emergence of ‘digital collecting’ of images and CDs, and attempts to copyright images
- Appearance of ‘bottom end’ of market for damaged and unidentified prints
The growth of a global market where extremely large numbers of prints and images are circulating among an ever-expanding group of actors and agents, has had a dramatic effect on the hierarchies of knowledge which previously structured the art culture system. The veneration of an imagined ‘classical’ period, landscape images, and a small number of key artists has not disappeared by any means, but its power appears to be diminished. Even elite institutions and museums now recognize artists like Chikanobu, who until very recently had been labeled ‘decadent.’ Others seem to be withdrawing into the small market segment of elite landscape print editions, where most of the remaining copies have been located and locked up.
The growth in the number and scale of collecting has started to blur the boundaries of the whole genre. The old style of restricted-information market encouraged dealers and collectors to specialize, because knowledge was so difficult to obtain. Today internet dealers in ukiyo-e are much more likely to sell other kinds of Japanese art including old postcards, netsuke, ehon (woodblock books), hanga (20th century woodblock revival prints), reference books, and high-quality reproductions. Because of the multiplicity of new sources and options, it is now possible to begin serious collecting of Japanese prints with as little as $20 after a few days of clicking and reading. And the ability to compare prices between auctions and galleries has tended to keep prices down in general, though some Ebay vendors are in the habit of asking ridiculously high prices.
The Japanese language remains a barrier, but it is now mitigated by English literacy on the part of Japanese sellers, as well as the increasing number of Japanese living in western countries. Many internet dealers are bilingual Japanese, partner with Japanese speakers, or employ translators. I have met several collectors in western countries who are themselves of Japanese ancestry, for whom the prints are an important link to their culture of origin.
Trends and futures?
When globalization and internet access suddenly undercut an established art market, we have a relatively short period, a window, which reveals how the old machinery was working. One example is the question of condition. For many years dealers used terms like “fine, excellent, very good, good, and poor” to grade the colors, paper, wear, defects, and impression quality of each print. Within the confines of a relatively small world of practice, the terms never really had to be defined, and they were rarely challenged. Now, with much greater accessibility of information, and the extreme visibility of large numbers of prints, people can see just how much variation there was in the coloring, registration and materials in a single edition, and understand that there are many dimensions of condition.
On blogs and discussion boards, collectors ask why should a print with severely faded colors be called “excellent” when another with small worm holes, backing, or trimmed edges is “good”? Judging by conversations on discussion groups and comments from dealers, people have become increasingly aware of how value-laden and uncertain statements about condition really are, even as they become more crucial given the difficulty of judging condition from photos.
Most importantly, the narrow conception of genres and their relative values, which structured the market for so long has weakened. Traditionally dealers threw prints into stacks labeled “actors,” “warriors,” “wrestlers,” “landscapes,” “ghosts,” and bijin (courtesans and prostitutes). From these they might pull out prints showing snow, cats, maps, or other subjects which appealed to “theme” collectors of different media. This was hardly the only way prints could be sorted, and in fact many prints do not fit any of the categories particularly well, since they might depict courtesans in front of a landscape, or actors playing warriors. Nevertheless, collectors tended to stick to categories or artists, since it was so hard to assemble or even view prints organized according to other themes, because physically handling hundreds of prints is time consuming and causes wear and tear. The internet has weakened the boundaries of these conventional genres, allowing collectors to choose and group prints in different ways. One can choose to assemble images from all the plays at a single theater, or depictions of firemen, beheadings, giants and dwarves, or restaurants.
There are other signs that the world of limited authorities who can make judgements about prints has opened up. There are more players, and more open debate about what differences really are the most important in making prints valuable and collectable. Some collectors question the importance of actual physical possession; if one is really interested in a genre, why not collect digital images as well as, or instead of paper ones? Valuation is much less under the control of dealers, and the auction has allowed collectors to more freely decide if a poor print by a prominent artist is more valuable than a good print by a relatively unknown, if topic is more important than condition.
Yet amidst the chaos of Ebay, the free-for-all of a global market with thousands of buyers and sellers connected together, structure is bound to re-appear in new forms, some of them quite unexpected. Just because the rules are no longer under the tight grip of a small group of dealers, academics and curators, does not mean that rules will disappear. It is still too early to see what the new structures of value are going to be, if the world of ukiyo-e is going to fragment into segments, or if new sources of authority are going to emerge. For the near term, I expect that competition for legitimacy in the marketplace will intensify, forcing many of the present part-time and casual vendors to professionalize and specialize. But given the extreme openness of the market, and the huge numbers of prints coming into circulation, there is no way to ever stuff the genie back into the bottle, and perhaps the prints can gradually turn back into what they started as – inexpensive pieces of paper offering a decorative commentary on an evanescent everyday world.
I am particularly interested in the prints produced at the very end of the genre as Japan rapidly modernized, and today my collecting focuses on how gender roles were changing during this period. When I began collecting, prints of this period were not available. Defined by influential collectors as decadent and worthless, most dealers and galleries did not handle them. There are still remarkably few good introductions to the genre – most books are exhibition catalogs or studies of a single artist or genre. Kita et.al (2001) is a good introduction.
Another avenue for prints to circulate from east to west was through U.S. servicemen returning from assignments in Asia. They often brought back prints as souvenirs, and this produced a huge reservoir of generally poor-quality (sometimes fake) and mostly decorative prints in households all across the USA, so they end up in many estate sales. Many were framed and hung in lighted areas, causing fading and deterioration. In Japan the prints have waxed and waned in popularity, but the ones which have survived as family heirlooms tend to have been pasted into albums by contemporary collectors. Until recently, dealers in both Japan and the west considered the bulk of these prints to be ‘junk’ – hardly worth selling.
- It is very hard to trace the current prices and pace of museum acquisitions, which are rarely fully disclosed. Nevertheless, reports do appear of astronomical prices paid for the best-known images by iconic artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Sharaku.
Cuno, James 2006 View from the Universal Museum. In John Henry Merryman, ed. Imperialism, Art and Restitution. New York: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 15-33.
Kita, Dr. Sandy, James Douglas Farquhar, Lawrence E. Marceau, and Katherine L. Blood 2001 Floating World of Ukiyo-E: Shadows, Dreams and Substance. Harry N. Abrams, September 1.