Some Dangers of Buying Woodblock Prints on eBay - Tips and Tricks
Welcome, woodblock print enthusiasts and collectors, today I thought it would be interesting to take you through the Japanese print buying experience on eBay. In a perfect world you’d go to a reputable gallery (I put a list of galleries I like at the end of this article). But many people like the bargains, and variety that an auction website like eBay offers. So I’m going to show you some dangers of eBay print shopping and give you some tips and tricks.
First some pros of shopping on eBay:
- eBay makes it very easy to find prints
- It’s an international marketplace
- It has safeguards that allow you to submit feedback on sellers
- They help with returns of items if they are damaged or it doesn’t match the description
And now some of the cons. You’ll have sellers who don’t know what they’re selling so you’ll get:
- Incomplete information
- Incorrect information
- Misleading information
- You’ll get people who don’t know how to take photos.
If we go to the eBay search bar, and type in "Japanese woodblock print", at the time of this article, I see 11,500 results. I recommend filtering this down with the filters on the left. I’d filter these results by the time period I’m interested in which is 1800 - 1899 and I’m down to 2,360 results.
Now, I’m going to show you some examples of what to watch out for.
Here’s a $550 framed triptych. #1 tip, try and avoid any prints that are in frames. The reason why is you can’t see how the print has been attached, or if it’s been backed. And if it’s got a Matt around it, you can’t tell how wide the edges of the print are. This is a good example of a seller who doesn’t know what he’s selling.
You can see in his description here, “if anyone knows the artist or maker, please let me know. In pretty nice shape” So this isn’t a good sign, how does this seller even know the value if they don’t know who the artist is? I did some research and found out the artist is Utagawa Fusatane, and this print is from 1889. According to a source I read, "Fusatane was a second-rate artist that could churn out slapdash, easy-to-produce designs.” I’m sure this print is worth something to someone but not to me.
1848 Kuniyoshi print - "Excellent condition"?
Alright, ready for another one, here’s a Circa 1848 Kuniyoshi print (on the left). It’s framed, and the seller has taken some decent closeup photos. But look how washed out the color is and the dirt and the discoloration.
This print was probably in the sunlight and has faded over time. If we compare this print side by side with another version (on the right) - you can see the dramatic difference in color and quality. But in the description the seller writes “The piece is in excellent overall condition”.
So either the seller doesn’t know how bad the print is, or he’s trying to mislead potential buyers.
Let’s go back to eBay, and look at this unframed Hiroshige print of Arashiyama for $699.
There’s some decent photos, but what worries me is it’s got this modern tissue paper overlay? And it’s on a backing of some sort so we can’t see if it’s glued down or not. Anyway the color and quality of the print look good, but is it worth $699? If we look at the description it says the age is 1850 - 1899, it’s a “vintage reproduction” with a date of “1853” so everything in the description points to a print date between 1850- 1899.
Here’s one of my favorite research methods. Take a screenshot of the print and go to Ukiyo-e.org, they have over 220,000 woodblock prints on file. then upload your screenshot into their image search engine.
On this results page, you can see the print we uploaded at the top left, and a bunch of similar prints from famous museums and galleries around the world underneath it. So now we can compare our eBay print with these. Here’s a key difference, see in the left corner, these publisher seals. If you compare it to our eBay print, they are completely missing. In fact all of these prints have the seals in the lower left. And, spoiler alert, I have some very similar prints from the same series that I am selling for $55 I estimate these were made in the 1940’s. So that’s quite a bit different than the 1850’s - and definitely not worth $699 bucks.
Let’s look at this Yoshitoshi print from his most famous series 100 aspects of the moon.
The price on this print is $3,895. And already I’m worried #1 because of the high price and #2 because it looks like the print has been cut down to the edges. Below is the eBay print, see the red lines, that shows how much of the print has been trimmed off. It makes me think that this is a modern reprint and the seller trimmed off the edges to hide the fact that it didn’t have the correct publishing information.
If I scroll down the page, we can see another copy of this print for sale on eBay for $219.00 (see below) that has a lot of trimming on the right and left sides. Still on eBay, here’s another print for $770. This print has a bit of dirt but, it’s only been trimmed a little bit.
At FujiArts.com they have the same print - a nice clean version with margins for $1,035. At Artelino.com - they have sold several copies of this print starting in 2010, the last one sold was in 2017 for $700 - so armed with all this knowledge, we can see that a price of $3,895 is way high, and due to the trimming there’s the potential it’s a more recent reprint and if so, should be under $200.
I’m not going to cast judgement on these sellers, you can do that yourself. And of course there are a lot of legitimate sellers on eBay - but that’s a subject for another video.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I’d provide a quick review of some galleries I like.
This isn’t a complete list by any means so forgive me if your favorite isn’t on here.
Starting with my own, Mie Gallery. Our goal is to educate newer print buyers, and provide Edo and Meji era prints at a reasonable cost.
https://egenolfgallery.com/ Egenolf gallery was established in 1975. Located in Burbank CA. Nice people, very knowledgable I bought a few prints from them.
https://japanesegallery.com/ Japanese Gallery in Kensington, England sells prints, ceramics, netsuke, Japanese swords, and more. I’ve bought some nice prints from them.
https://www.artelino.com/ Artelino is a virtual auction house located in Germany. I’ve bought several prints from them as well They have a fantastic print archive that contains 60,000 prints they’ve sold. It’s great for researching print values.
https://www.woodblockprintsworld.com/ Woodblock Prints world is in California and has a wide selection of reasonably priced old and modern prints.
https://www.collectingjapaneseprints.com/ Elias Martin is the founder and owner of Collecting Japanese Prints in Illinois. He is a dealer, curator to private clients, and educator with over 20 years of professional experience. If you like shin-hanga, he’s your go-to resource.
https://www.artsanddesignsjapan.com/ Arts and designs of Japan is based in San Francisco. It’s run by Peter Gilder, very nice people, I’ve bought prints from them - get on their monthly email list.
https://www.fujiarts.com/ Fuji Arts is the highest volume Japanese woodblock print retailer in the world. Based in Ann Arbor Michigan. I’ve bought many prints from them. I wish they had an archive of the prints they’ve sold like Artelino does.
https://scriptum.com/artists Scriptum is based in Berkeley CA, they have a wide variety of Traditional and Modern Prints.
Richard Ukiyoe is in London, England, Dealing in fine Japanese prints, paintings and books since 1968.
https://www.ohmigallery.com/ I like Ohmi gallery ,A nice collection of prints from all eras for sale. Plus, a gallery of the owners personal print collection.
Stay safe out there, and Happy collecting!