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Utamaro print showing

 

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FAQ: How do you grade quality and condition?

 

Is there a grading scale?

Standard grading descriptions for ukiyo-e represent an important and difficult area for discussion. The short answer is that there is no standard, quantitative grading scale, and the frequently encountered descriptive terminolgoy is not always used consistently. Judgments about quality and condition are a blend of the quantifiable and the subjective. For example, any attempt to grade color quality would require quantifying the original state as well as the present state, based on a predetermined scale of color, an obvious challenge even when you have a rare pristine ukiyo-e specimen of the same design with which to compare.

Even if such a comparison were possible, questions still arise concerning variations in original color densities, the depth or saturation of printing for different impressions, differences in the sizing of paper, changes in the color of the paper (which affects the perceived color of the translucent pigments), and so on. The traditional colorants used in ukiyo-e prints are today difficult to analyze. We do not always know which organic compounds were used for a given hue, or whether the remaining hues are the result of fading of a single colorant or of a mixture of one or more colorants. Ukiyo-e prints, being handmade artifacts, often exhibit differences among impressions off the same woodblocks even in their earliest states. In most cases, we do not know what the original color was for a given impression, although experienced experts do have some idea (based on similar prints of the same period) and can offer educated guesses. So what often happens is that descriptions of condition are accepted as shorthand guides to quality.

Major auction houses typically describe ukiyo-e in terms of impression, color, and condition, sometimes assigning the labels fine, very good, good, moderately good, fair, and poor (thus hinting at a grading scale of 1-6). Sometimes "condition" is used to describe the print overall, and then the impression and color are described separately. These terms are elusive, however, and have not been consistently defined or applied. Yet those familiar with descriptors of condition, such as the six labels given above, have a good sense about what is being described — "I know it when I see it" approach.

Perhaps the 6-step "Fine to Poor" scale given above, if applied separately to impression, color, and condition, would be useful if we could arrive at some consensus about its meaning. Impression would refer to the quality of the printing the particular sheet, which would not change over time; color would refer to the perceived changes between the assumed or known original hues and the current appearance of the colors; and condition would refer to everything else (such as the presence of soiling, toning, creasing, staining, wormage, poor mounting or framing damages). The following might serve as a starting point toward establishing a consistent grading scale for ukiyo-e:

Fine: As near to pristine as possible; sharp impression with unbroken lines; unfaded color probably unchanged from the day the colors were printed; unblemished condition. Ukiyo-e prints in "fine" condition are quite uncommon even in museum collections (especially 18th C. ukiyo-e) and the term should be used for specimens only in the very best or most remarkable states of preservation.

Very Good: Only very slight changes from the original state; impression still sharp and showing no obvious wear from the block; color very close to unfaded with only a slight diminution of hue intensities, where even the fugitive ukiyo-e colors of the 18th century (like the blues, reds, and purples) would be preserved close to their original color; condition barely changed with very minor defects such as very slight soil at the edges.

Good: Some noticeable changes from the original state; impression good but showing some wear; color loss evident although some hues might still be well preserved; organic purple (often a mixture of red and blue) typically faded to reddish-brown, blue to bluish gray, red to pale red or rose, green to blue; condition shows some slight soil or minor creasing, wormage only minor; toning minimal where paper only slightly darker than the unchanged paper color.

Moderately Good: Significant changes from original state, but still the overall condition retains some aspects of original quality; wear in keyblock lines & registration of colors sometimes off; colors all faded to some extent, with the most fugitive colors very faded (blue now gray, purple now light brown or tan); soiling, toning, and creasing obvious and beginning to affect overall appearance of print.

Fair: Substantial changes from original state; impression shows wear throughout in line quality or in color registration and saturation; colors mostly faded with only weak partial color still remaining; soiling, toning, and creasing detracts noticeably from overall appearance of print.

Poor: Excessively changed from original state; worn out block produced weakened keyblock lines or poor color registration; colors mostly or completely faded; substantial soiling, toning, and creasing.

Obviously some of the terms used above (e.g., "minor,", "slight," "best") are subjective and open to interpretation, and combination-gradings of condition are possible (for example, a print with VG color but with only MG impression and in only Fair condition). © 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo

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What is my print worth?

The novelist James Michener, who amassed one of the world's finest private collections of ukiyo-e prints (now in the Honolulu Academy of Arts), once happily reported that Japanese prints "were poor material" for financial investment (see Michener reference below). He then proceeded to list the equivalent prices of a particular Sharaku print that he owned, as it had passed from one famous collector or private collection to another between 1903 and the time he acquired it in the late 1950s. At that time, Michener's assessment was correct, as the Sharaku print had actually declined in value when adjusted for inflation (from $850 down to $344). Michener called the concern over monetary value an "unhealthy emphasis" that introduced "extraneous factors into appreciation."

With respect to the monetary values of certain prints such as Michener's Sharaku, time has ultimately proved him wrong — at least for now — as the cost of Sharaku's prints has risen astronomically since Michener's time. A few of the choicest specimens have sold for nearly half a million US dollars on the auction market during recent highly speculative periods (see Christie's reference below).

Nevertheless, many would surely agree with Michener's concern over "extraneous factors" interfering with the aesthetic appreciation of art. Questions indeed arise in the wake of inflated monetary values. For example, can we examine a Sharaku print without considering its value in the market place? How does such an awareness of the commodification of art affect our ability to experience the emotional and narrative power of the design? When we see such a print, do we become enthralled by its effect primarily as an art object, or are we more than just a little affected by our knowledge of its cost? Is it "important" because scholars have long recognized the great skill and uniqueness of Sharaku, or because it is worth so much money, or both? If both, how do we sort through the confounding effects of art and commerce? When do we lose sight of the intrinsic value of art and fall prey to "art as coinage"? We are all to varying degrees curious about the monetary value of Japanese prints and other works of art. It is hardly a recent phenomenon, as arts and crafts have for centuries been objects of desire and popular commodities. What we should regret is that too many of us assign an equivalence between the financial cost and the aesthetic value of a work of art.

One of the most frequently asked questions by collectors is "what is my print worth?" Putting aside for the moment the concerns just expressed about the confounding of aesthetic and monetary values, it might be helpful to identify the various factors that affect the prices of Japanese prints. Some of these factors would apply, of course, to other works of art. The order of the descriptions below may imply a ranking of importance, but this is an area of malleable value, and not every print would be affected by what is listed below in precisely the same order or to the same degree. The consistency and duration of the effects of these factors also vary.

Artist: The reputation of an artist greatly affects the price of a print. Prints by artists whose works are much admired can cost a great deal more that works by those who are considered of only secondary importance. Thus two designs that are of roughly equal value when judged on purely aesthetic grounds (as if, for example, neither print were signed or attributed to particular artists) could vary enormously in price if one were by an acknowledged master while the other were by a student or follower. Similarly, a very fine design by a secondary artist can cost significantly less than a mediocre design by a master artist.

Design or subject: The type of design can have a significant impact upon cost. There are perennially appealing subjects in Japanese printmaking that always seem to command higher prices: charming portraits of mothers with children, scenic views of attractive landscapes, beautiful young girls in colorful costumes, and so on. In contrast, subjects that are frequently more challenging or less universally appealing typically fetch lower prices: an unfamiliar historical parable, a bloody samurai battle, or a gruesome ghost scene in kabuki. It is quite common for an easily accessible but rather conventional design of a beautiful woman to outperform in the marketplace an innovative but disturbing kabuki scene, even by the same artist.

Originals and reproductions: The differences in valuations between original impressions and reproductions of 17th - 19th century ukiyo-e prints can hardly be overstated. A celebrated design by one of the great masters of ukiyo-e can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, whereas a finely made reproduction, even one created a century ago with all the deluxe printing techniques used in making the original impression, might be worth less than 1% of the original. Even in cases where the differences are not so dramatic, the market value of a reproduction will be a mere fraction of the original, no matter how well made or how old the reproduction.

Condition: The state of preservation generally has a huge impact on cost. Japanese prints that are well preserved can command very high prices when other cost-enhancing factors fall into place, even when the designs are not particularly impressive. Most collectors desire specimens as close to their original condition as possible, and many are willing to pay high prices for such prints. The same design in two different states of preservation can realize prices that are separated by magnitudes of ten or more. Thus condition problems such as fading, creasing, soiling, tearing, toning, rubbing, and trimming will reduce the value of a print, at times precipitously. Conversely, a print with pristine colors and no condition problems can realize surprisingly high prices.

Rarity: All things being equal, the rarity of a design will increase its value. This does not, however, guarantee that a rare design will be valuable in itself, but simply that on a comparative basis, two prints by the same artist from the same period and of very similar design would differ in price if one were known in many impressions while the other were known in only a few. In addition, artists who designed many different works sometimes suffer in the market place because familiarity diminishes the desire for ownership. Thus occasionally some excellent designs can be lower in price because so many other designs by the artist are known.

Fashion or current trends: Markets respond to the current interests and preferences of those who participate. Certain artists or types of designs might be highly sought after during one period, while in another almost neglected. Various ukiyo-e artists, popular during their own time, fell into neglect for long periods, only to be resurrected. Fashion is fickle, and prints are certainly affected by the vicissitudes of popularity. Sometimes an explosion of interest will drive prices up, but then a deflation of competition will allow prices to fall. Whether they fall to previous low levels or to somewhat higher baseline levels depends on circumstances, as does the longevity of the effects of fashion. It is possible, for example, that the mere reawakening of interest in a particular artist will re-establish new (higher than previous) base price levels, even after the fashion frenzy subsides and the top prices fall.

Financial markets: The overall activities of worldwide or local financial markets will usually affect prices, either in the short or long term. The so-called "wealth factor" certainly plays a role in determining prices, as larger numbers of buyers with more cash reserves should obviously increase competition and drive up prices for prints. During highly speculative periods prices can climb to extraordinary heights, only to fall precipitously when the financial market cools down and liquidity diminishes.

Scholarship: Professional, academic, and amateur researchers can sometimes uncover new aspects of artists or their works. They may also reintroduce a forgotten artist or discover an unknown one. Such critical analyses can occasionally have some effect on the prices of prints. A notable expert in the field of Japanese prints may aid in developing a new appreciation for a certain artist or school, or even a particular work or subject. Other researchers begin to refer to the new scholarship, dealers quote from commentaries, and collectors acquire the prints at higher prices.

Exhibitions or publications: Prices can be affected by the exhibition of or publication about an artist's works. Interest is naturally increased when widely advertised museum shows take place or when books are released. Some exhibitions have been influential in establishing a new baseline for prices, as they often confer new prestige upon an artist's body of work. The public assumes that the curators of the shows have judged the artist worthy of special consideration, hence the exhibition is taken as proof of the artist's worthiness to be collected. Competition therefore increases and prices escalate. Whether the enhancement in reputation and cost is long-lasting remains to be seen, but the short-term effect can sometimes be dramatic. There are also occasional exhibitions of important private or public collections that will soon be marketed; in these instances, the institutions or galleries benefit from displaying the prints as a coherent collection (before its dispersal), drawing crowds of patrons to see their shows, while the owners and soon-to-be sellers benefit from the prestige associated with displaying the prints in a public forum, which more or less guarantees higher prices when the collection is sold.

Provenance: Prints that have come from well-known collections, private or public, will frequently command higher prices. There is a tendency to assign more overall value (and thus cost) to works that come from the great private collectors or institutions simply because famous people once owned them. Although the print remains technically unchanged by prior ownership, a sort of "autograph hunting" exists among collectors and curators who are all too proud to announce that a particular print was once owned by a famous collector. One might argue that such provenance assigns a cachet to the print, as if the great collector or institution bestowed a certain status upon the print by merely including it in their collection. The difficulty lies, of course, in knowing just why or how the print entered the earlier collection. Was it one of many acquired in bulk and not particularly admired, or was it especially sought after and treasured by the previous owner? In fact, how do we know that the acquisition of every print in the collection was the result of an astute judgment? Nevertheless, there is among collectors an inclination to appreciate a special connection with the past, so when a print can be identified with prior collectors of a certain reputation, its value is enhanced.

Local or specialized Interest: Certain artists, designs, subjects, or styles have greater appeal in some geographical areas or in some cultures than in others, and thus a print might command noticeably higher prices in one locale than in another. Included under "specialized interest" are those instances in which only a few collectors (including institutions) vie with one another for works that do not ordinarily command the prices they are willing to pay. So a collector might pay a great deal more for a subject that he is specializing in, or a museum might pay a very high price for a print that would complete a polyptych that they own (that is, minus the sheet they are attempting to acquire).

Venue or source: Certain wholesale and retail outlets may produce higher prices than others. A dealer with a laudable reputation will often obtain more for prints than would an unknown seller. The international auction houses typically handle the higher priced art works and thus an association with these auctions will sometimes have an effect on the prices realized. The auction venue also creates, at times, such a competitive atmosphere, that we witness "emotional or impulse buying." In these instances bidders will pay more for prints than they would otherwise in less competitive settings where there would be far more time to consider the purchase and the price.

"New to the market": Occasionally (and as time goes on, less frequently) there are collections whose contents have been "off the market" for decades. When the collection becomes available once more (often through the sale of an estate by heirs of the original collector), the prints sell for higher than average prices simply because they are seen as "fresh." Conversely, a desirable print that repeatedly appears on the market (through auctions, dealers, or private sales) may decrease in price as it becomes too "familiar" and questions are raised about the reasons for its frequent reappearance.

Given the valuation factors just described, how do we determine the market value of a print? What is required is a knowledge of and experience with long-term historical valuations, recent market trends, and up-to-date retail and auction prices. Collectors with such experience and knowledge can often determine their own relative market valuations. An estimated range is about all one should expect, for even fairly stable valuations will fluctuate for any given period of time. If one lacks knowledge and experience with the pricing of prints, it is advisable to seek consultation with an expert dealer, auction house consultant, or museum curator. A novice collector should try to obtain more than one independent appraisal from persons who have direct experience with Japanese prints, not just generalists who might have had only limited involvement with ukiyo-e or 20th-century Japanese prints. Take note that some who offer appraisals will charge for the service, while others will not. There are now, of course, many dealers advertising and selling on the Internet, while most museums have at least some sort of Internet presence, and virtually all auction houses are on the web. Thus you should have some convenient options for at least beginning your search for valuations.

Keep in mind that appraisals are necessarily subjective, so the answers you obtain from various sources will not necessarily be equivalent. Also, if you provide only a photograph or a scan of your prints, the appraiser will be partly handicapped by not having the actual print in hand, and will be at the mercy of the imperfections of photographic or scanned images. The value of Japanese prints is especially dependent on the quality of impression and condition, which cannot always be communicated accurately in photographs and scans. There is no substitute for examining the actual print when making an appraisal; nevertheless, most qualified appraisers of Japanese prints can usually provide a reasonable, though provisional, estimate if supplied with high-quality, detailed photographs or scans and accurate condition descriptions. © 2001-2002 by John Fiorillo

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Christie's, Japanese prints, paintings, illustrated books, and drawings from the collection of the late Theodor Scheiwe, Part I. New York, March 21, 1989 (auction catalogue), p. 68, lot 64, which sold for $462,000.
  • Michener, J., Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Moderns. Rutland VT: Tuttle 1959, p. 151.

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