If you’re reading this article, it’s either because you’re in possession of an antique Japanese woodblock print, or you’re looking to purchase one, and you’re hoping to determine “is this woodblock an authentic antique”, most likely to determine “how much is this antique Japanese woodblock print worth”.
Both questions are difficult ones, and this article’s aim is to give you insight into making those determinations. If you are in the process of buying an antique Japanese woodblock on eBay or other auction website, please read our Japanese woodblock print auction guide.
Exploring what it means to be “real”
Antique Japanese Woodblock Prints do not include edition numbers
To begin exploring “is this an original antique Japanese woodblock print”, we first need to discard any Western ideas of prints. In antique Japanese woodblocks (pre-1950) we will never see an edition number (for example “#4 of 300”). All antique Japanese prints were “open editions”, and there is little/no scholarship on how many of each print were created. Some prints became popular at the time of their original publication, so the (original) publisher would choose to have their artists keep churning out copies. Other prints were commercial flops, so one a limited set of the print would be created. But in both cases no record of the total produced was captured, we can only guess.
Same design, lower quality
A print design meets initial commercial success, but there is a lot of time, effort, and cost that goes into publishing high quality Japanese woodblocks. What’s a publisher to do? Lower the quality. In this case the same woodblocks would be used to create the prints, but fewer colors would be used, lower quality paper, and the general artistry would be lowered. These are still original antique woodblock prints, but just from a lesser edition.
One design, multiple publishers
Sometimes a piece was very successful, but the artist decided to take the original design and (with small alterations) might bring it to another publishing house to publish it. This piece could sometimes have a poem on it, include or omit special printing effects, be on different paper, have different color schemes, etc. in order to make it “unique”, but at the same time obviously the same piece. Hiroshige pieces are a great example of this: if you look at Autumn Moon over Tama River you’ll see a wide variety of copies of this piece, all original to the artist (we have another variant here).
The design is one thing, ownership of the blocks another
So far we’ve been talking about the artist, but in woodblock printing they’re only part of the process. The artist would create the design and then work with a team of wood carvers, inkers, etc. to create the complete woodblock and print. That output, that of the woodblock itself, brings us to the next part. The publishers (hanmoto) or publisher-booksellers (honya) owned ukiyo-e woodblocks, not the artists, and so the publishers could do as they pleased with the blocks without any involvement of the artist. Copyright law did not exist before the Meiji period (1868-1912). The principle of ownership was called zôhan (“possession of blocks”), which implied copyright and the legal right to publish images or texts from the blocks. Sometimes blocks, called kyûhan (“acquired blocks”), were passed on or sold to secondary or tertiary publishers.
These publishers could then publish their own editions of the design, however many they decided.
So far we’ve been discussing what is generally termed “original” within the scholarship of Japanese woodblock collecting: any impressions made during the artist’s lifetime from original woodblocks cut from the designs provided by the artist. These can also include “restrikes”, “reissues”, or “reprints” which would be later publishing off of the original blocks, but sometimes with small block changes (keep in mind that woodblocks wear down and/or break during repeated printings so new blocks are often carved). Some of these printings would be different states of the same piece, or printings with minor changes would be considered different “editions”. Again, all considered “original”, and generally these are identified by early, middle, or late editions.
Occasionally a piece would do so well financially that rogue publishing houses might be tempted to create a knock-off design; considering the investment to create this, these are quite rare, but worth mentioning.
Meiji reproductions of ukiyo-e designs
In the Meiji period (1868-1912) there began a thirst for ukiyo-e designs, especially as Western markets discovered them and began collecting. To fill this demand publishing houses would hire artists to recreate popular designs and carve all-new blocks. Hiroshige and Hokusai are among the most reproduced, but there are others as well. These reproductions are still what we would consider authentic woodblock prints, however not “original” in the sense that their craft didn’t include the original artist in their creation.
Yes, there are fakes. But the fakes are also “reproductions”, the question is instead whether they are being reproduced to deceive the buyer. Technically, there is no difference between a “reproduction” and a “fake” — the distinguishing characteristic is the intention of printmakers to engage in fraudulent behavior. A company called Takamizawa is rather known for this; in the mid-1900s they would recreate famous woodblock prints with such skill that they were able to even replicate the faint woodgrains visible in the originals. If it were not for their publishing mark on the verso of the print, you could make a case for them as counterfeiters. We have a print by Takamizawa, Utagawa Hiroshige – Fireworks at Ryogoku Bridge, and it is stunning. And yet, it’s an authentic Japanese woodblock print!
Authenticating a Japanese woodblock print
Authenticating a Japanese print involves the assessment of an array of attributes, including key block lines, quality of colors, types of papers, style of block cutting or printing, size of paper or image, and likelihood of reproduction. The most reliable way to authenticate a print is to compare your impression with a known original. Very few collectors own vast numbers of prints for comparison or have ready access to such collections in private or public hands, so the next best alternative is to use reference books with high-quality illustrations of known originals or resources like Ukiyo-e Search.
Below are the attributes to evaluate against, in the order that I use to make my own judgements (especially when buying online).
Likelihood of Reproduction
Publishers will not invest time and money to copy prints that are difficult to sell, so they rely on masterpieces, famous artists, or popular imagery (pretty women, landscapes, famous actor portraits, etc). The average or obscure design rarely merits copying for commercial purposes. You will find countless reproductions of landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, for example, so when you stumble across one, don’t get your hopes up that it’s a first-state original worth thousands of dollars.
Key Block Lines
Compare the key block lines (the lines that are almost always black and represent the basic drawing of the design) with a good photograph or illustration of a known original. Look at all the lines (including signatures and inscriptions) and compare how the lines or strokes end or vary in thickness, direction, or angle. Nearly all versions will have differences in the key block lines, but this should help you authenticate the piece against already known/authenticated editions.
The papers used for originals also have their special characteristics, but judging the authenticity of a print solely on its paper can be difficult if the print is an old copy (such as recut copies of Hiroshige’s prints made during the Meiji period). Old prints typically show the designs on the reverse side of the paper, where the ink bled through the paper, whereas some modern copies do not. Modern papers tend to limit absorbancy more than Edo-period papers, but a design might nevertheless show through in some modern impressions. In addition, the thickness of handmade papers varies, which could affect whether the design shows through on the back. Sometimes modern papers are stiffer and smoother than older papers. Yet even the condition of the print can have an effect on the paper’s smoothness or stiffness — a print that was previously pasted down with chemical glues, or one that was dried out from acidic backings, will often have a different texture from prints that were well preserved. If you’re not an expert in the age of paper, don’t worry too much; general rule of thumb – if you can’t see bleed-through of the ink, or if the paper feels too thick and smooth, it’s likely a more modern reproduction.
Those with experience can also assess the authenticity of most ukiyo-e prints by judging their colors. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colorants produced a certain range of hues, translucency, and texture that an experienced eye can discern. There is a transparency and richness that is due to absorption of colorants deep into the paper matrix, distinguishing many (though not all) original colors from those found in copies.
Block Cutting / Printing
Another aspect to compare is in the quality of the block cutting and printing. In general, Edo-period prints have lines with a more “calligraphic” style than modern copies, appearing like brush strokes due to the greater absorbency of the papers and to the preferred styles of cutting the blocks. Modern cutting and printing styles (i.e., those used in the 20th century and currently), along with modern papers, tend to produce a more sharply defined line with a more uniform edge. Still, there were exceptions, and so caution is urged when attempting to assess authenticity based solely on the quality of line.
The size of prints might also be helpful in distinguishing a copy from an original, although in general copies (whether made to deceive or not) were made in the same size as the originals.
All of the above being said, it’s worth remembering that these woodblock prints are hand-made by artists, not churned out by a printing press, using tools that changed over time. Colors can vary, absorbency can vary, the woodcut itself can get worn down over the course of an edition or even parts broken and replaced. As an example, one of my favorite pieces in my own collection is an early edition printing of Eijiro Kobayashi’s “Bridge at Night”. I know it’s an early edition based on the thinness of the paper, the lack of margins and publisher mark (distinguished middle and late editions), and other signs. But my favorite aspect of it is the tiny pin-prick stars; those stars disappear in later printings from the blocks as they get clogged or worn away. The fact that this printing has such great color and clean lines, and is one from the early edition, brings my joy.
If you have a piece that you’re questioning, reach out. Send an inquiry and we’ll help you as best as we can.
A note on buying pre-1900 antique Japanese woodblocks on eBay
Let’s be honest and admit to ourselves that we all want to find a diamond for a discount, and ebay often times gives us this. In relation to antique Japanese woodblocks, this often comes in the form of “original” Hiroshige or Hokusai woodblocks. Why those two? Because for almost two centuries people have been seeking prints by these two masters. As mentioned earlier, the majority of Hiroshige and Hokusai “originals” that you’ll find are what we termed “Meiji reproductions of ukiyo-e designs”, while some are simply one of the later edition/reprintings. The issue becomes when eBay vendors, either through ignorance or deception, take advantage of this confusion. I want to illustrate one such example here, entitled “RARE ORIG ANTIQUE 1800’S HIROSHIGE JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINT – PINE TREE IN RAIN”.
The listing details were as follows:
INCREDIBLY RARE – ORIGINAL CIRCA 1800’S JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINT BY RENOWN JAPANESE ARTIST – HIROSHIGE. THIS PRINT WAS PURCHASED FROM A PRIVATE ESTATE OF AN ART COLLECTOR – AN INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY TO OWN AN ORIGINAL PRINT BY HIROSHIGE. THE PRINT IS STAMPED WITH A MAKER MARK IN THE LOWER RIGHT HAND CORNER, AND MOUNTED TO A HEAVIER STOCK PAPER WHICH HAS THE TITLE AND ARTISTS NAME IDENTIFIED ” PINE TREE IN RAIN ” ” HIROSHIGE ” . PRINT IS OF A BEAUTIFUL RAINY DAY SCENE OF A PINE TREE SILHOUETTE, WITH BOATS ON THE WATER AND MOUNTAINS IN THE BACKGROUND. A WONDERFUL PIECE OF ART WOULD LOOK FANTASTIC FRAMED – PERFECT FOR ANY COLLECTION OR DISPLAY – MUST HAVE ORIGINAL HIROSHIGE WOODBLOCK PRINT. DO NOT MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY TO OWN THIS RARE PIECE OF ART.
There are a few tip-offs that this is a later Meiji-era printing (1900s), such as the tipping to card stock and the pencil signature in English, but the biggest indicator is that red stamp in the right corner, the publisher mark of the Shima Art Company. Why is this such a huge tip off that this was printed in the 1900s and not the 1800s? Because the Shima Art Company wasn’t founded until 1908 (Hiroshige himself died in 1858).
So I messaged the seller, who happens to have a seller rating of 35,495, and both presented him with this information and implored him to revise his listing. He kindly thanked me for the information… and then let the auction continue without making any change to the description.