Evaluating a Print
In order to curate a stunning collection of Japanese art, one must know how to properly evaluate a print. This process begins not with technical or scholarly knowledge of the work, but with one’s visceral reaction to the print. Frank Lloyd Wright stated that “the prints choose whom they love and there is no salvation but surrender.” A print might offer a famous artist or impeccable condition, but if the piece doesn’t speak to you at a visceral level, then it may not be the work for you.
One’s second consideration should be design importance. Certain works, such as Hiroshige’s Plum Garden at Kameido and Ohashi or Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa and Fuji in Lightning retain a high value even with condition problems. Just as there are iconic designs, there are also iconic artists, including Moronobu, Harunobu, Sharaku, Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, and Yoshitoshi.
Next, one should determine impression and state. Impression refers to how early the image was pulled from the woodblock. The earliest printings exhibit visible wood grain and clean, sharp lines, while later impressions present less crisp lines as the block is worn down. Particularly popular designs would be printed so many times that the woodblock would have to be recarved, usually with slight differences from the original. The prints pulled from these blocks would be a different state than those of the original block. State also refers to any color changes that might occur in the printing of a design.
Finally, the collector should determine the condition of the print. Have the colors faded? Yellow is quick to fade, so look out for greens that have lost all their yellow and turned blue (as seen below in Hiroshige's Plum Garden at Kameido).
Prints may also be backed, whether because they were once part of an album or in an attempt to protect a brittle print. If adhered with a water soluble paste, a professional conservator can remove the backing without damaging the print. If the adhesive is not water soluble, this is a condition concern. Trimming and centerfolds are other condition issues that can detract from a work's value.
Reading a Print
The ability to evaluate a print should be paired with the skill of reading a Japanese print. This practice includes a consideration of artist signature, publisher marks, censor seals and collector seals. One should familiarize oneself with artist signatures even if they can’t read the Japanese characters.
A signature can appear anywhere on the print, but it is often found near the publisher’s mark and censor seal(s). Most signatures are followed by the characters ga, fude, or hitsu, which mean “drawn by.” Artist’s rarely signed their work with their family names, instead using go, or artist names. These go were passed down from master to pupil and many artists changed their go multiple times throughout their careers. Publisher marks are frequently printed in the margins of a print. The publisher coordinates the various craftsman involved in printmaking: the artist, carver and printer. Censor Seals can usually be found around the publisher marks and are critical tools for dating woodblock prints. Implemented in 1790, these seals ensured that the government inspected all printed material. The publisher was required to present the censor with a sketch and receive approval before a design could be engraved. Note that these seals are not found on pre-1790 prints, private printings, or shunga. Finally, certain collector seals can add to the rarity and overall value of a print. The seals to look out for are those of Hayashi, Vever, Beres, and Le Veel (as pictured below).
So You Want To Be A Collector?
During the late Edo period, an oban sized full color print sold for 20 mon (roughly 400 yen, which in U.S. dollars today would equal around $3.59). Today, certain designs surpass a million dollar price tag! While the U.S. dollar has suffered from inflation (the buying power of $1 in 1913 has the buying power of $23.95 today), ukiyo-e have only increased in value. The Metropolitan Museum of Art paid Frank Lloyd Wright as little as $60 for a Shunsho print in the early 20th century. Today, a comparable work would sell for around $10,000. With a rich history of collection and a solid investment status, Japanese prints present a unique experience in art collection. Learn to evaluate and read a print, but be sure to work with a trustworthy dealer. The market teems with fakes and reprints, some of which are very convincing. A dealer will provide the years of expertise needed to build a quality collection.