We all want to find a treasure when sorting through the yard sale that is Ebay. And sometimes it’s possible when trying to buy an antique Japanese woodblock print… but quite often you’re going to be disappointed. While this is certainly not definitive, perhaps it will inform your purchasing and steer you towards a better outcome the next time you bid on a piece.
Lack of good photos showing detail
It is nearly impossible to get a good sense of condition when browsing most ebay listings for Japanese woodblocks. Most take a couple of blurry photos, often with reflections, can’t or won’t show you margins, and don’t know to look for things like foxing, toning, or other discolorations.
Still in the frames
Many are still in frames, and the sellers won’t take them out to give more detail.
This is problematic for three reasons:
1) you can’t see the back of the print,
2) you can’t tell if the print is affixed to the backing, and
3) you can’t see the acid damage that the matting has done to the print.
Why do you want to see the back of the print? As we’ve discussed, the back has important details such as bleed-through, publisher markings, and more. But to the other two points, removing a print from backing material can be costly and necessary as that backing board isn’t acid free, and as you’ll find commonly with woodblocks, the non-acid free matting that was used pre-1980 can leave significant discolorations on your print.
If you’re new to Japanese woodblocks, it’s possible you’ve gotten excited about one or more artists. A good example is Kawase Hasui. Many people don’t know, for example, that Hasui prints used 14 different seals, typically found in the margins, and that the value between one seal and another can be a factor of 5x to 10x? A reputable dealer would disclose this information, a seller on ebay most likely will not.
Originals vs re-carvings
This often comes up when the person selling isn’t knowledgeable in Japanese woodblocks. They’ve done a search, found a matching print, and listed it as an early 1800s Edo woodblock by a master. The only problem is the print is a Meiji-era recarving done in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The difference in value? 10-100x.
A good dealer will inform and educate on the subject, whereas an ebay seller will most likely capitalize on your ignorance within the subject.
For more information please read our article How do I know this antique Japanese woodblock print is real?