Valuing a Japanese print 101

by: Chris Koller

A high level discussion on what to evaluate when assessing the value of a Japanese print. This is intended to be a 101 introductory article to the valuation process to help non-experienced collectors consider a few important factors when making their purchasing decision. The valuation process to determine a true monertary value of a print is more involved than simply the items listed below, but this is a good start.

There are multiple factors to consider when trying to assess the value of a Japanese print. The considerations can range from the scarcity of the actual print, as well as the version, to the condition of the print as compared to what would be considered a mint condition impression.

Artist: The most obvious initial indicator of value is who the artist is. The market value of an artist's prints is typically determined based on the demand from true collectors and dealers, as well as some influence from the overall perception of the casual collector population as a whole.

Scarcity: Scarcity in many cases is a leading component of determining the value of a Japanese print, especially if it's a print from a renowned artist. When considering artists like Hiroshi Yoshida, Kawase Hasui, Kiyoshi Saito or Paul Jacoulet, some of their most valuable prints are prints which are not easily attained or circulated in the open market. Many times the limited edition prints, or prints early in the artists career, can fetch significant asking prices at galleries and auctions around the world.

Version: As is the case for most Japanese print artists, a specific print was produced in multiple sessions over many years. There are a few considerations as it relates to these productions. The first consideration is whether the print was made from the original woodblocks, or from re-cut woodblocks. The original woodblocks were created by the artists and these prints will hold the most value. Once you've ascertained that the print is from the original woodblocks, next you must consider the date of the first edition and how this compares to the edition which you're considering. The earliest first editions will hold the most value. Later impressions will still hold value, but could be significantly less valuable than the earliest editions. The same print by the same artist can be worth $1,200 or $300 or be worthless depending on the edition. Some prints are produced only in limited editions. Many artists produced both open edition prints, as well as limited edition prints. Limited edition prints are numbered and were only produced in the edition size defined. Since the print is limited in the number produced, this significantly helps increase the value of the print. That being said, some artsists like Haku Maki only produced limited edition prints which means that the edition size doesn't impact the value consideration of the print as significantly as let's say an artist like Kiyoshi Saito who produced both open edition and limited edition prints.

Impression: When discussing impression, we can consider multiple factors including the quality of the colors, as well as the quality of the impression. When dealing with woodblock prints, typically the earlier impressions are of better quality, and have a more pronounced color, than the later impressions as the woodblocks start to wear down from use.

Condition: When discussing condition, there are many factors to consider which can impact the value of a print. These factors include:

  • Is the print backed?
  • Are there binding holes?
  • Has the paper browned/yellowed or changed colors?
  • Have the colors of the print faded?
  • What condition are the corners in?
  • Are the corners and margins worn?
  • Have the print's margins been trimmed?
  • Are there creases in the paper?
  • Does the paper have waterstains?
  • Does the print have foxing?
  • Has the print been laid down / glued by the corners?
  • Is the print missing any areas?
  • Has the print been retouched in any way?
  • Is there oxidation on the print?
  • Has any area of the print been restored?
  • Is there any extra writing on the print added by one of the owners?
  • Is there any rubbing on the print?
  • Is there any soiling or staining?
  • Are there remnants of glue / tape on the print?
  • Are there stains from previously applied glue / tape on the print?
  • Are there any tears?
  • Has the paper thinned out?
  • Are there any wormholes in the paper?

Pay close attention to condition, when it comes to valuing prints, the condition of the print is critical to ensure that your print holds its peak value.

Seals: Seals are both a key factor in determining value of a print, as well as determining the authenticity of a print. A good example of this is the use of the jizuri seal by Hiroshi Yoshida as discussed further in this post. References of original prints should be used for comparison when considering the purchase of a Japanese print. It's important to check that all necessarily seals are in place, and the seals appear in the correct locations, and match up to the fine details of the original. When checking the seals, compare the following components to the original:

  • Series title
  • Subtitle
  • Artist's signature
  • Artist's seal
  • Publisher's seal
  • Censor's seal
  • Date seal
  • Printer's seal
  • Carver's seal

The use of seals can help determine whether the print was an original early impression, a later impression from the original woodblocks, or if it's a re-cut version of the print. The date, publisher, printer, carver and version of the artist's seal combined helps to determine when the print was made.

Subject: Although left for last, it's definitely not least, the overall appeal of the subject and artwork is also a key determining factor of the value. Some subjects, and interpretations of a subject, have a very natural appeal among collectors, and the appeal of the subject itself can comparatively increase the value of the piece compared to other less desired subjects.

Hope this information helped!