Advice buying antique Japanese woodblock prints on eBay and auction websites

Kawase Hasui - Chunum Temple in Korea

Kawase Hasui – Chunum Temple in Korea

Buying antique Japanese woodblocks on eBay, LiveAuctioneers, other auctions or marketplaces can be incredibly exciting, but it’s also where it’s very easy to significantly over-pay and be incredibly disappointed when your woodblock arrives in the mail. While we’d of course prefer that you purchase woodblocks from our store, or even one of our fellow dealers, we understand the enticement to “get a good deal” from an online auction. With that in mind, here are the things you should keep in mind as you browse those auction websites looking for a diamond in the rough.

Be careful of framed woodblocks

Framed prints present a huge challenge while giving the seller potential cover from any issues that you discover. Behind a frame you’re unable to get a clear sense of the condition of a print, often obfuscating the information you need to make a truly informed decision. At the same time the seller is able to say “not inspected outside of the frame” so you’re potentially purchasing it “sight unseen”. Even the parts you can see through the frame can be hiding details through reflections of the glass.

Look for fade lines or Mat burning

Over their lifetime many prints have been framed, and as a result of framing, often suffer from fading or mat burning.  Keep in mind that acid free matting didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s and UV glass and plexiglass didn’t become commonplace until even more recently.

When people took their prints to get framed, framers would often place matting over top of the print, covering the margins if there were any, but often also occasionally covering part of the image itself. As a result you’ll often see discoloration (acid damage) from where the matting overlapped the image, or fading of the image itself compared to the hidden area from the UV damage to the ink and paper. Sometimes this is minor, sometimes significant. This will affect the value of the print, but also possibly your enjoyment of the piece if it’s distracting.

Ask to see the margins

Seeing the margins can, for many Japanese woodblocks, differentiate a modern inexpensive reprint from a valuable antique. The margins of Japanese woodblocks can contain information that tells the date of publishing, whether it’s a first edition, who published it (which would give you insight into editions), and even if the artist was involved in the publishing.

Some quick examples:

  • A Hiroshi Yoshida woodblock can have a “Jizuri seal” which indicates whether the print was self-printed or mass-printed. A jizuri-sealed Yoshida might sell for $1500 while a non-jizuri of the same print could go for $300.
  • A Kawase Hasui woodblock can have one of almost dozen different publisher seals, each indicating whether it was pre-earthquake, post-earthquake, printed during the artist’s lifetime, or a modern reprinting. A modern reprinting might sell for $300, a lifetime edition for $800, and a pre-earthquake for $10,000.

If you’re unable to see the margin, keep in mind that there is this missing information that you’re not able to use to validate what you’re purchasing, but it’s also possible there might be fade lines or acid damage as mentioned earlier.

The back of the print (verso) is very important

There’s a few reasons why we want to get a chance to see the back of any Japanese woodblock print.

First, we greatly prefer a print that isn’t adhered to a backing material such as foam board, cardboard, etc.; it’ll cost money to remove the print safely from that backing, if it’s even possible at all, and chances are that that backing material isn’t acid free, so it’s going to continue to degrade the print.

Second, there is sometimes important information on the verso of a print. Some publishers put their information on the back of the print, such as Takamizawa Publishing Company, and their recarvings are so high quality that without seeing the publisher mark you wouldn’t know if the woodblock was from 1850 or 1950.

Third, we want to be able to judge the quality of the paper. While this is hard to do remotely, you can ask the person to hold the paper up to the light to see if there any holes, tears, or thinning that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.

Compare the color, get a sense of the real color

While you might not think too much about it, color is actually a really hard thing to accurately represent remotely. Yes, someone can take a photo and post it, but is the camera (many times a phone’s camera) performing color correction? Many phone camera settings are set for HDR photography, often over-saturating the colors of the subject in order to make them more vibrant. You also have to look at the lighting that the image was taken in, whether the woodblock was behind glass (and anti-glare glass). Let alone the potentially unscrupulous seller who is adjusting the color so as to make the listing more eye catching or “correct”.

Our recommendation is to always look up other copies of a woodblock print from a trusted source (ukiyo-e.org is a good starting source, do not use jaodb.com which sources from ebay) to see what the print should ideally look like. Use that as a comparison tool to see what the piece for sale looks like, and then if you have questions about the color in the piece for sale, ask for another photo to be taken in different lighting.

Note: almost all of the woodblocks on our site are scanned using a high resolution professional scanner with a uniform color profile configured just for them. We stand by our representation of our woodblocks.

Do your own research, don’t rely on the listing information

Most of the people selling antique or vintage Japanese are not dealers; in many if not most cases they know very little about what it is that they have to sell. We’ve seen “original Hiroshige print from the 1800s” that had a publisher stamp from the mid 1900s on it, prints labelled as being by one artist when they were by someone else entirely, incredibly bad color “correction” to boost the saturation on a piece that shouldn’t have looked nearly so garish… but if you didn’t do your own research, you probably wouldn’t know either!

The best thing you can do before bidding on any antique Japanese woodblock is to look it up and research everything you can about it. Learn about it so you can make a solid, informed decision. Trust me, this will be time well spent! Not only will you feel confident about your bids, but you’ll also become so much more knowledgeable about Japanese woodblocks which will help you in your quest to build a collection.

Happy bidding!

Update on 10/20/2021

I’m adding this example because I mostly talk about disingenuous auction dealers in the post above, but I want to be fair to all parties. Upon seeing a recent listing for a copy of Arai Yoshimune‘s Suma Beach print, from the Hasegawa’s Night Scenes series, I reached out to the auction house. It was listed as “Eijiro Kobayashi‘s ‘Moonlight Beach’ from 1904′, with a “certificate of authenticity” issued by Suleyman Nasib-Cooke, curator of Masterworks Fine Art in San Francisco. This certificate has a number of significant flaws:

  • this print isn’t by Eijiro Kobayashi but is instead by Arai Yoshimune
  • the title is Suma Beach and not Moonlight Beach
  • it wasn’t a limited run of 50 printings, even in the early edition (there were multiple editions issued)
  • it was part of the Hasegawa’s Night Scenes series not the ‘Sumida River Series’
  • the image isn’t in reference to Whistler
  • the blocks this print were made from weren’t cancelled as there were multiple editions of this print issued

Again, this wasn’t the fault of the auction company which made their listing based on the information provided with the print. But it’s clear that, if you are making a bid on an item at auction, do your own research.