One of the shows that I love to binge-watch is Antiques Roadshow on PBS. For those not familiar with this show, “the roadshow” consists of a varying cast of appraisers and dealers that go from city to city, rent a large space, and then people buy tickets to bring their antiques that they don’t know about to get on-air appraisals from the experts. These could be signed letters from George Washington to cast-iron kids toys from the early 20th century… and everything in between.

I recently watched this part of an episode where a woman brings in a collection she inherited of Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui prints.

Art Appraisal #1 by an appraiser

It should first be said that yes, this is a “made for television” moment, and yes, it has likely been abbreviated to put it into a 3 minute format. But in this short clip are so many of the issues that we come across when people bring prints to the gallery (or email) with appraisals in hand. In our opinion, if you’re not able to give a client correct information, or are disseminating incomplete or erroneous information, that you should referring that client to another expert. Below are the quick issues found in this video:

Hiroshi Yoshida values

The appraiser shows one of the Hiroshi Yoshida prints and notes the signature (1:13) “he signed it here”. Those who have read our article about Hiroshi Yoshida will note: this is block-signed, not pencil signed. The appraiser goes on to say “these go for about $2,000 to $3,000 each”, but as a viewer of this gallery will probably attest, block-signed Hiroshi Yoshida prints are typically $700 to $1,000, whereas jizuri-sealed prints can go from $2,000 to $20,000.

Kawase Hasui values

In much the same way that there is a large difference between jizuri-sealed Hiroshi Yoshida prints and block-signed prints, Hasui values can be just as finicky. Again, the appraiser says $2,000 to $3,000 each, but if we look closely at the first print that he shows and holds open the matting, we can faintly see a 6mm seal in the lower right corner. “Kankai Pavillion” was published in 1950 (so we’d only see a 6mm here), but looking quickly at the others in the stack, most Hasui collectors would quickly agree that a 6mm seal on a Hasui is a $800 to $1,500 print generally, whereas a pre-war seal can be double, triple or more. Not to nitpick, but the appraiser then mistakes the title and date in the left margin as “Hasui’s signature and a description of the scene”.

Treatment of the prints

The appraiser in this video notes the great condition of the prints, that because they had been sealed away, that their color was still exceptional and bright. What he fails to note is that all of the prints were tipped to display folios, all of which are almost certainly acidic material and could easily cause matburn from the acid in them. He should have told the woman to immediately bring them to a restorer to be carefully removed from the backing paper and to be stored with non-acidic archival materials.

The change in values from 2004 to 2019

This part at 2:50 in the video really kills me as it’s not the appraiser here, but perhaps the producers, that are giving bad information. They estimate the value of this collection at $20,000 to $30,000 in 2004, but then say the value declined by 2019 to $15,000 to $25,000.

Notwithstanding the issues with the appraisal values, any collector of Japanese woodblocks over the last 20 years would be quick to tell you how much the auction and retail prices of these prints, especially Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui, have skyrocketed over the last 20 years. A print that you could have purchased retail for $500 in 2004 is now likely going for anywhere from 4x to 10x that price now, and that trend would have been apparent back in 2019 when this was aired.

A better appraisal, this time by a Japanese woodblock print dealer (Appraisal #2)

Appraisals beyond this episode

We have seen some incredibly bad appraisals come across our desk. Whether it was an online appraisal service, a brick-and-mortal appraisal company, or even an appraiser who let slip “whenever I see a Japanese print I just assume $500 to $1,000” (without looking up the print), we’ve seen the worst of the art appraisal industry. While we don’t offer appraisals, we’re happy to tell people what it is that they have in their possession, as well as some information about how much we tend to see it sell for at auction or retail.

I don’t say this lightly, but try to avoid starting your search quest through an appraisal company. Many appraisal companies, even if they’re art appraisal firms, do not have a significant background in Japanese woodblocks – it’s simply not their area of expertise. Above I’ve included a copy of a professional appraisal that was included in the process of selling the pictured print to me. This appraisal was done by a certified appraisal services firm, one that also runs an auction house.

Almost everything in this appraisal document is wrong.

Contrary to the appraisal, this print wasn’t created by Hiroshige in 1835, but instead Kawase Hasui in 1944. It is not ukiyo-e (ended in the late 1800s), but is instead shin-hanga (began in the early 1900s). Then there’s the huge explanation about the “red chop mark as an indication the print was produced after the artist’s lifetime” – that’s Hasui’s signature using his seal, and the publisher mark is in the lower left corner indicating it’s a lifetime edition print.

Without going too much further into it, it’s pretty clear why this is a problem – an appraisal company took a customer’s money and gave them wildly incorrect information that would then be used for insurance purposes, sale purposes, etc.

Perhaps a better way to get an appraisal

From our experiences with art appraisers, many don’t have a background knowledge of Japanese woodblock prints, and even if they do, it’s typically periphery to their main focus. For them, they often don’t know how to even begin with identifying the artist, print, etc. Once they have this information they can often do the research necessary to identify values, but it might be up to you to do the initial legwork in making an identification. Rather than “here’s a woodblock, can you give me a value?” instead say “this is a Hiroshi Yoshida, Cryptomeria Avenue, jizuri-sealed and pencil signed”. It might be on you, rather than the appraiser, to do that initial identification work so that your appraisal can be more accurate.