Collecting Original Japanese Woodblock Prints

The collector should remember that they are custodians of treasures held for future generations. These prints represent what is a lost art, and as time goes by, they are becoming even scarcer. Preserving and caring for these objects ensures the opportunity for future generations of art lovers to also enjoy them.

In A Guide to Japanese Prints and Their Subject Matter (1979), Basil Stewart highlights many important basic facts, which are essential knowledge for the woodblock print connoisseur.
The team at Galerie bei der Oper, fully endorse the statement below by Stewart

(Additional quotes to be found on this page are from Part I (The Collector) Chapter III (On the Formation and Care of a Collection) and Chapter IV (Forgeries, Imitations, and Reprints))

Basic Knowledge:

There are original Japanese woodblock prints and all kinds of reproduced prints.

Original Japanese woodblock prints are antiquities. The condition matters.

There are many different genres and artists. The rarity of a print matters.

For maintaining the value, the right storage and care when handling is important.

Information about the print can be incredibly detailed, whereas in other cases, it can be lacking completely. Be patient when learning about Japanese woodblock prints.

How to start a collection

A collection usually consists of more than a few pieces of the same type. Each collection is unique. The best way to start a collection is to not only buy prints by a single artist, or from a specific period, or genre, but to also buy what simply appeals to you, even though you might not yet know exactly why it appeals. Learn more and improve your knowledge; get a feel for it and grow with your collection.

In order to improve your understanding and gain a better feel for quality, you do not have to only focus on prints in top condition. For beginners, for example, it is very beneficial to interact with all kinds of papers. Restrike or reproduction prints can also be acquired in order to train the eye to identify important characteristics and differences. Start your own journey in the appreciation of original Japanese woodblock prints and establish a connection with these authentic, original artworks and the wide variety on offer.

Most importantly: take your time! Nobody is born an expert, and building a collection is a lifelong pursuit (just like a garden).

Originals vs. Restrike Prints

Keep in mind that original woodblock prints are not unique. Woodblock prints have always been made to be reproduced. An original print means that it has been printed from the original (first cut) woodblock.

There are many imitations, even forgeries. If a restrike is clearly labelled, buying or selling a restrike print is perfectly fine. As mentioned previously, it is important, almost necessary, for a collector to have held one in their hands. Bear in mind though, that a restrike print cannot be considered a part of a collection of original Japanese woodblock prints.

Reproductions are prints taken from a modern wood-block, cut from an original print, or from a photographic process block. Revamped (recut) prints are the bugbear of the collector till he (comment of the writer: or she) is acquired sufficient experience to detect them. No worries - with a bit of training, the difference in paper and color is noticed easily.

Reprints are prints taken from an original block, but so long after the block was cut, that the outline is coarse and defective. As long as the old blocks are in existence, such reprints are always possible, but comparatively few of the many thousands which were engraved exist to-day for such use. It is simpler to make reproductions.

How to decide which print will improve your collection

The two chief points to be considered in the value of a collection are (1) the rarity of the specimens, and (2) their condition. The rare and high-quality prints will always be pricier, but they will always keep their value (if treated well).

A comparatively cheap print, provided it is a genuine old one, and in good condition, is preferable, from an artistic point of view, to a modern reproduction of a rarity.

We do not recommend collecting only as a source of investment. While, no doubt, a collection made with care and discrimination will also prove a good investment from a materialistic point of view, if these prints are not acquired for the pure pleasure of their beauty and charm, they are better left alone. Otherwise, the perception to sift the good from the bad will be lacking, and without such discrimination no collection is likely to give any real pleasure to its owner or even be worth much.

Improving your collection will take time. Sell the prints that no longer compliment your collection. These may well be found amongst the first prints you acquired.

 The most misunderstood facts about rarity:

Rarity is not a matter of age, but instead about the quantity of surviving examples of a print. Frequent earthquakes have caused numerous fires in Japanese cities. These fires have been responsible for the destruction of an unknown number of woodblock prints and their woodblocks. And, again, it should be pointed out, that scarcity does not necessarily depend upon the number of copies originally printed, but upon the number available in proportion to the demand for a particular print.

Also, rarity should not be confused with value: a quality which often depends on the foibles of fashion, or because a particular artist happens to be in vogue at the time, quite apart from the rarity, or otherwise, of his work. It sometimes happens, therefore, that a relatively common print will fetch a higher price than another scarcer example.

How to do a quick quality check:

What do the colours look like? Look out for fresh-looking colours (Slight fading due to age is not detrimental, as the colours all tone in an equal degree.) Fresh colours, however, are not in themselves evidence of an early impression. As a block required recharging with fresh colour after each impression, a late impression might easily show good colour.

What do the outlines look like? Blurry outlines are a sign of heavy use. One should look instead at the sharpness of the outline, though even this cannot always be taken as a sure guide owing to the practice of recutting old blocks (or revamping, as Americans call it), whereby the outline will appear as sharp as from a new block.

The paper can (and sometimes should) bear signs of wear and tear. Any physical damage, worm damage or discolouration should be in keeping with its age.

As your collection grows, storage will become an issue

We recommend storing your collection in folded sheets of quality, acid free drawing paper. This will help you save space as your collection grows, and make the handling of your prints easier. You can store your collection in cardboard boxes; however, drawers are usually the simplest to access. Make sure that the room is free from damp. Diptychs and Triptychs (or any multiple sheet picture) are best kept stored as single sheets.

 Never use glue!

If you prefer to hang your woodblock prints, we provide Japanese frames, which can easily be opened. This allows for prints to be frequently changed. Please contact us if you wish to purchase a display frame.

We also provide a certificate with every purchased print, so the information about the print can be stored alongside the print in an additional folder. We recommend developing your own numbering and filing system.

The Don’ts:

Never cut or trim the margins, even if they are blank or torn.

Never resize the print for the frame. If you want to hang it, choose a frame that fits the print. If you are displaying the print, make sure that it is carefully placed into proper matting. Only fix the upper left and right corners of the print to the mat, using acid free tape.

Keep your prints from getting wet or damp. You never know what kind of dyes have been used. Some colours possess delicate tints that easily run, others contain metals that can discolour.

Never glue the print to cardboard, wood, paper, or indeed anything else.

Keep the print away from sunlight, especially direct sunlight.