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FAQ: "Original" Prints


FAQ: What is an original print?

Ukiyo-e scholars generally accept as "original" any impression made during the artist's lifetime from original woodblocks cut from the designs provided by the artist. A "restrike" ("reissue" or "reprint") would be a later impression off the original blocks, although sometimes with fewer color blocks, omission of special printing effects, cheaper papers, or some key block changes (block changes would represent different "states" while printing changes would constitute different "editions" of the original design).

A "copy" or "reproduction" would be an impression from recut blocks (that is, not the original blocks) based on the original design. We might exclude as reproductions those few lifetime impressions from recut blocks that were sanctioned by the artist or his publishers, as in cases where the blocks for a popular design were damaged or lost. A few examples exist in Edo-period editions where the faces of actors were replaced or "plugged in" (not necessarily by the original artist), or the heads or hairstyles of courtesans replaced, while the rest of the design remained unchanged. These are considered genuine, but "reissues" of originals, although the block changes certainly make these examples quite different states. Still again, there were relatively uncommon lifetime pirated editions based on genuine designs that were drawn, carved, and published without the permission of the artist or his publisher. These would not be "original" to the artist who first conceived of the print design, but in ukiyo-e collecting and scholarship, a pirated Edo-period copy is still a genuine, lifetime ukiyo-e print, however much it differs from the original design or fails to fit easily into the category of original prints.

So we might define our terms as follows:

Originals: Prints made during an artist's lifetime from the earliest (original) blocks whose designs were cut from block sketches based on the artist's original drawings. Originals frequently include later reprintings from the original blocks for indefinite periods of time and also include alternate "states" (impressions from the original blocks but with changes or substitutions in one or more of the original blocks). Completely recut blocks are considered original (or rather, "authentic" or "genuine") only if they were made during the artist's lifetime to replace lost or damaged blocks.

Reprints: Prints made from the original blocks at various times after the first or earliest editions. "Reprintings" are synonymous with "restrikes" or "reissues." Their value can be highly dependent on how close in time they were issued to the original editions; posthumous impressions from original blocks would, of course, hold far less value than early, lifetime impressions. In ukiyo-e scholarship these terms are not commonly used (they are more frequently encountered in discussions of modern prints), while the terms "early," "middle," and "late" impressions (or editions) are typically used to define the characteristics or quality of original prints.

"Pirated" Editions: Relatively rare editions from completely recut blocks made during the artist's lifetime. Some were close copies of original designs, while others were made in the style of the artist's works.

Reproduction: A copy made from recut blocks based on the original design. "Reproductions" are synonymous with "copies." There have been enormous numbers of reproductions made of ukiyo-e designs from the Meiji period (1868-1912) to the present day.

Fake: A reproduction meant to deceive, often simulating the effects of age or older pigments and papers. Technically, there is no difference between a "reproduction" and a "fake" — the distinguishing characteristic is the intention of printmakers to engage in fraudulent behavior (for more on this topic, see Takamizawa).

Ownership of Woodblocks: The reissuing of prints from original woodblocks often involved more than one publisher. 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. Before the Meiji period, copyright law did not exist; however, the principle of ownership was called zôhan ("possession of blocks"), which implied copyright, ownership of the blocks, and the legal right to publish images or texts from the blocks. Sometimes blocks, called kyûhan ("acquired blocks"; also guhan), were passed on or sold to secondary or tertiary publishers. © 1999-2002 by John Fiorillo

  • Lane, R.: "Hiroshige: Variations on Kambara," in: Forrer, M. (ed.): Essays on Japanese Art Presented to Jack Hillier. London: Sawers Publishing, 1982, pp. 98-117.

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FAQ: How do I know my print is an original?

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. All but the comparison of key block lines are difficult to describe without having actual prints for "hands-on" demonstrations. 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.

Key Block Lines: First of all, compare the key block lines (the lines — almost always black — representing the basic drawing of the design) with a good photograph or illustration of a known original. Look at all the lines (including calligraphy or inscriptions) and compare how the lines or strokes end or vary in thickness, direction, or angle. If you have a hand-cut reproduction you will see differences throughout the design. (There are a few very deceptive copies, but they are relatively rare.) Upon careful examination nearly all copies will reveal differences in the key block lines.

Colors: 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. It is difficult to describe these qualities, but in general 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.

Papers: 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, whereas some modern copies do not. Modern papers tend to be more highly "sized" (with glue, gelatine, or any substance that controls or limits absorbancy) 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. There is no easy rule to follow, although experience and a good eye do help in judging the authenticity of older Japanese papers.

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.

Image Dimensions: 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.

Likelihood of Reproduction: Another factor that might provide a clue about authenticity is the popularity or attractiveness of the image. Publishers will not invest time and money to copy prints that are difficult to sell, so they rely on masterpieces, famous artists, or perennially popular imagery (pretty women, pleasing landscapes, striking actor portraits, and so on). The average or obscure design rarely merits copying for commercial purposes. Thus we find countless reproductions of landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, portraits of stylish women by Utamaro, and actor prints by Sharaku.

It should be noted that handmade original prints can show small differences over the course of printing if the batches of papers were sized differently (thus absorbing the pigments to variable degrees), the blocks became warped or worn, the colorants were mixed in a range of consistencies (thus spreading differently into and across the paper), or the printers applied inconsistent pressure in the same areas on different impressions.

All the attributes of a print should be examined until something definitive can be used to rule out authenticity. In my view, the inexperienced observer should start with the comparison of the key block lines. ©1999-2005 by John Fiorillo

For more on this topic, refer to:

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