Collecting Japanese woodblock prints

The art of Japanese woodblock prints represent stunning representations of Japanese life from breath-taking landscapes and beautiful women to fierce samurai. For very little investment these stunningly dramatic prints offer a bold statement to any interior and if captured by their simple beauty offer a life time of collecting opportunities. The countless prints produced over centuries by these most skilled craftsmen are decorative, but more importantly many are affordable, even on a small budget.

For less than one hundred pounds you can buy an entry-level original or several fine 20th century re-prints. There’s also the thrill of the hunt in finding a good print at a good price, researching an unidentified print and learning about the historical context the print reflects.

So where to start?

Many new collectors find the complex signatures daunting however once you’re familiar with the styles of the major artists, a design usually can be matched to reference images at specialized websites and books. These sources also have guides to artist signatures and seals. Other details such as publisher and year can often be deciphered by similar guides.

Many prints made during the lifetimes of Japanese master artists are classed by experienced collectors as original or early impressions. These remain the most keenly collected and sought after and as such command the highest prices however later editions and reprints (where an original woodblock is reworked and reused) are readily available and affordable.

There are five main genres of Japanese prints representing Japanese life in all its elements with landscapes, Geisha, actors & dramatic scenes, animals, birds & flowers and historical events. While most artists traditionally focused on one or two key genres many would also create works in others. Styles were often influenced by earlier famous Japanese artists, contemporary competitors, popular fashions, and into the 19th Century Western elements.

Prints produced by early masters are easily identified by the use of a softer more subtle palette while after the middle of the 19th Century the colours became more vibrant, even garish with bold clashing colours.

There were also schools and studios of artists located all across Japan creating varying styles, over time and with experience it becomes clear as to where an artist was based, be it Yokohama or Kyoto.  

What to look for?

When considering a purchase, the ideal way is to examine the work by hand and preferably unframed. All Japanese woodblock prints will have some ink bleed through on the reverse while modern reproductions will not. Original woodblock prints will also show paper fibres on unprinted areas, while reproductions will usually have a uniformly smooth appearance and texture.

Compare the print you’re considering to a known early impression. Examine the faces and calligraphy. Also check colour shading as lower-quality re-prints may lack the gradual shading found in good prints Also if the image includes unusual special effects like embossing, this shows the care used for a quality print.

If you can’t find a comparison image, try to determine the prints publisher, often given by a seal (printed signature) on the edges of the paper, the reverse, or even within the design. Each publishers seal varied over the years providing a rough dating guide. While this may sound complex, armed with a good reference book you can quickly and simply compare a signature and estimate the age of the work. If you can decipher the publisher and date, that is a major help in narrowing down the possibilities.

Subject is another identification help as artists often created different designs of particular Japanese landmarks, so recognizing the landmark narrows down the possibilities. More interestingly the date of a Geisha image can be estimated by her hair style, and actors determined by their family crests on their kimono.

Where to buy?

Because it’s always best to see a print in person, try to find yourself a good specialist dealer. The focus will be on higher end pieces however their pricing will reflect the true market value. In addition to having generally fair prices, many of these dealers are willing to advise new collectors and scout for desired prints.

Also keep your eye on the auction rooms around the country. Many find this market daunting so will often be a little generic when it comes to cataloguing and attribution. With a little research and a lot of luck you might just unearth a treasure.

Condition, condition, condition!

When investing in Japanese prints, more so than many other areas of collecting, the quality and condition always should be considered. Unless the print is very old the colours should be vibrant. Colours on earlier prints may inevitably deteriorate due to the early inks used, but fading on later designs is not a good sign.

Other condition problems include holes, tears, tape and margin trimming. Also avoid paper browning and spotting (also called foxing, caused by a fungus). Any of these denote major reduction in value. The only possible reason to buy poor-condition prints is for rare designs, particularly those needed to complete a series.

Japanese woodblocks offer a wide and exciting area for both collecting and investment. The images are as bold today as when first created and still provide inspiration for graphic designers and advertisers. Once you begin looking into this centuries old tradition you’ll find it difficult to stop.


Posted on 2 July 2019 in: Auction life

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