by Dr. Lori Verderame
Japanese woodblock prints are lovely works that go under many names. Ukiyo-e or floating world images date from Japan’s Tokugawa and Edo periods (circa 1600-1868). Made by well known masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige, Japanese woodblock prints are highly collected worldwide.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japanese woodblock prints became very popular and were widely reproduced. The most common subjects in Japanese woodblock printmaking are landscapes, beautiful women, scenes from the theatre, animals and flowers, and historic events.
Original prints are typically those prints which were made by the artist or the publisher in the artist’s lifetime from the artist’s original woodblocks with designs cut by the artist. Artists did not own the woodblocks necessary to make their prints. These were owned by the publisher or publisher/bookseller. Without the artist’s input, the publisher could produce as many prints as they wanted.
Authenticating Japanese woodblock prints is similar and different from identifying valuable prints in the West.
A restrike, reprint, or reissue is a later impression made from the original blocks with some changes or variations. Changes may be the use of cheaper paper, tweaks to the image, fewer or more colors, etc. Changes to the wood block itself refer to a different state of a print while changes to the printing process refer to a different edition of a print. Also, remember that these are still prints, not posters. Understand how to tell a print from a poster.
What to Look For
Look for those special, hard to fake traits of a Japanese woodblock print like: quality of colors, key block or outlines relating to the basic drawing, and popular subjects or themes. Also, the paper type, size of each sheet, and thickness are all important traits when assessing prints. Old prints may show colors bleeding through on the backside of the paper. Printed images on newer papers are usually less absorbent because of the modern use of chemicals that limit absorbency. Modern papers are typically stiffer, smoother, and often shinier than older papers. Most prints that were made prior to 1860 used soft colored inks.
A popular subject or attractive image is more likely to be reproduced than other images. Why? The fake would be easier to sell. For instance, certain landscapes and images of lovely women are regularly reproduced.
Japanese woodblock were collected by the artists of French Impressionism. Many of the Japanese images were inspirational. Today, collectors look for full editions of prints and single prints. Values range from a few thousand dollars for a good quality print to more than $100,000 for a complete original edition by a master of the woodblock.
Get an online appraisal of your Japanese woodblock print from Dr. Lori.