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Considering Condition: When Can a Negative Become a Positive?

How many of the traits that traditionally depreciate a print’s value actually preserved the work’s overall value? When considering the value of a print, there are certain traits deemed unfavorable. Trimmed margins, sharp centerfolds, and album-backed prints can deter the seasoned collector, yet a consideration of context complicates a black-and-white understanding of these common condition issues. In fact, these depreciatory aspects might have preserved other favorable attributes of the print.


Example of a Trimmed Print. Image: Ronin Gallery.

TRIMMING

Many full-sheet Japanese prints may have a blank border of 1-2 centimeters. The removal of these margins or the cropping of the image itself can drastically reduce the value of a print. In the early 20th century book Chats on Japanese Prints, Arthur Ficke describes how, “one well-known collector…cut down the size of his Hiroshiges, leaving only those portions that particularly pleased him…If the feeling of later collector have any potency in heaven, these men are now in hell.”[1] While many collectors echo Ficke’s outrage, though perhaps not as vehemently, trimming can actually protect the print in the long run. This practice removed brittle edges or small tears budding along the edges of the print, reducing the chance of accidental tearing into the design. Furthermore, these prints were likely trimmed to fit a frame. Though still vulnerable to light and humidity fluctuations, these prints were safer in a frame from moisture, creasing and ripping, than a loose print. With this in mind, prints may loose value through trimming, but the trimming could have preserved the overall condition of the work.


Example of a Centerfold. Image: Ronin Gallery.

CENTERFOLD

As ephemera, Japanese woodblock prints would not be packed in acid-free folders during the Edo period. Prints would be folded and slipped into a kimono to be carried home. While the print would be displayed for a period of time, when the owner was ready for the newest fashion or latest kabuki icon, the design would be taken down and put away. Today, collectors look at the deep creases bisecting a design and see a major condition problem. A distinct centerfold can disturb the overall impact of the print and weaken the paper along the crease, yet centuries of being folded in half has its perks. With the printed design folded upon itself, the image is protected from direct light. Before the popularization of aniline dyes in 1860s, ukiyo-e prints were printed with natural dyes. Fugitive colors, such as aigami (dayflower blue), beni (red/pink), and ai (indigo), are especially sensitive to light. When exposed to a light source, they rapidly fade, detracting from the overall value of the print. While folded prints are not completely safe from fading, the colors may be better preserved that a loose or framed print.


Detail of backing. Image: Ronin Gallery

ALBUM

Albums take two main forms. The first is a bound album of a complete set of a print series. Side-bound with thread, this format will leave holes, if not tearing along the edge of the print, but will preserve color well by limiting the images exposure to light. The second type of album, presents a collection of prints, but pasted onto backing rather than bound together with thread. If the prints are adhered to their backing with a water-soluble paste, the prints can be removed with little damage (if this task is completed by a skilled professional). Protected from fading, soiling, tearing, prints taken from albums can boast vibrant color and overall excellent condition. Though the thought of glue on the back of a print may discourage some collectors, when properly removed from their backing, album-based prints preserve critical aspects of a prints value.

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Collecting Japanese prints is an art in of itself, an academic pursuit that constantly challenges its students. Determining a work’s value is not straightforward as it may initially seem. Instead, the collector must weigh a spectrum of qualities to determine the true value of a print. While the aforementioned condition problems are not desirable, their presence might be to thank for a print’s breathtaking color or overall condition.

[1] Arthur Davison Ficke, Chats of Japanese Prints. Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1917. Print, 438.