Tom on Japan
Buying Japanese Woodblock Prints
In our previous article we talked about Japanese woodblock prints generally. Now we are going to discuss how to go about buying them. (NOTE: In the Japanese print lexicon the terms “artist” and “designer” are used almost interchangeably. We make use of each term in this series of articles.)
You could try estate sales or sales of Asian art at the large international auction houses, but price and selection probably are going to be more to your liking at specialty Japanese print dealers. Some dealers, mostly located in major cities, cater to walk-in as well as online clients. If you live in or around one of those cities, go in and have a look. But most people probably will find themselves buying from established dealers online.
Dealers usually fall into one of two categories when it comes to their predominant sales method—sale by online auction, or sale by fixed, perset price. You’ll find dealers in the dealer sampling we’ve provided on the Helpful Info page. (NOTE: we have no financial interest in listing these dealers, but have been satisfied in our dealings with each of them. Their quality websites are well worth a look for anyone wishing to become familiar with Japanese prints.)
Purchasing prints online is fairly simple, with only a brief learning curve. Whether or not you end up buying it’s easy to become immersed in these dealer sites because they are the easiest and quickest way to get a good foundation in Japanese prints. You then can start to supplement your burgeoning print education with widely-available general interest books on the subject, and online articles which reflect your interest in more specific topics.
As you look through various dealer sites you’ll quickly become familiar with their general price levels. While the range of prices will vary greatly at individual dealers, the successful ones have figured out who their market is—and so carry print inventory which for the most part reflects what their typical customer wants and can afford.
So now is a good time to talk about the different kinds of Japanese prints out there, and how they are priced. The low-end, for starters, provides many kinds of choices. One is reprints produced in large quantities, typically from the post-World War II era, and therefore seldom in short supply. Colors can be flat rather than vibrant, and so not compelling as in better quality prints. If the original print had lots of sophisticated detail, some of it may be lost in an inexpensive reprint.
But there are exceptions, and as you develop an eye for Japanese prints you may be able to spot them. Sometimes the dealer will point out why a particular print or group of prints is an exceptional value. Maybe the dealer was able to buy advantageously at an estate sale or liquidation of a large collection, and can pass on some of the price advantage. As a general rule however this type of low-end print is not a good choice for investment, if that’s your goal, but is perfectly acceptable if you want to build a collection on a relatively tight budget. Remember from our last article, you still are buying genuine prints—not mass-produced art posters. Prints of this type often can be had in the $35-$50 price range.
Those low end reprints are only one possibility at this price level. Another is original prints by lesser known artists, though these aren’t always available in the marketplace. But the best value at this price point may be original flower and bird prints. Rare first edition flower and bird originals by top designers in this category (“kacho-e”), and in really great condition, can run $200 to $300 apiece, or sometimes in pairs (diptychs) at that price point. But you also can find non-rare later edition examples in the $40-$50 range. Obviously if a particular print can be had for $40 or $300 something must explain the difference, and the explanation is multiple markets for this—or any—print category. Some people are in the market for rarity, top condition and/or investment, others not. So shop around and decide what best fits your own collecting goals and budget.
Another type of low-end print is one which was higher quality at one time but since has fallen on hard times—with condition issues of one kind or another. Maybe it’s faded or stained, or has creases, folds or holes or tears. But don’t reject these prints out of hand. Classic Japanese prints or reprints can go back one or more centuries—and so are very likely to have some sort of condition issue. The rare few that don’t usually fetch much higher prices.
That condition issue, however, might be your opportunity. If you can live with the condition—and many experienced collectors do just that on a case-by-case basis—you may be able to purchase a wonderful print on handmade paper for a bargain price. It’s very difficult to generalize here because of the huge range of possible condition issues and print rarity, but $50-$300 is a fair approximation for the kind of prints we’re talking about. That $300 print might have been worth over $1000 if it was in better condition. You can also find $5000 prints selling for under $2000 because of condition issues.
For prints without major condition issues the next tier up might be $75-$500. You’ll notice some overlap in the price ranges but categorizing in this way is highly subjective—so there will be overlap when you’re considering purchasing across different print categories.
In this price range you can find many original prints in reasonably good to excellent condition, by second or third tier artists (by first tier flower and bird artists), but still attractive prints which can be well worth owning. Also here you’ll find a huge number of high-quality reprints of designs by first tier artists, such as the great 19th Century landscape print designers Hokusai and Hiroshige, or 20th Century landscape print designer Kawase Hasui. You can easily assemble a very nice collection just by staying in the price ranges discussed so far.
While not every dealer stocks prints in quantity at lower price points, many do carry prints in the next range up, which we’ll arbitrarily call $500-$1500. Here you will find many wonderful, original prints by well-known 19th and 20th Century designers. You can also find some beautiful posthumous reprints from arguably the two greatest 20th Century Japanese print designers—Hashiguchi Goyo and Torii Kotondo, both portraitists of the first water. But even reprints (rather than originals) of their work don’t grow on trees. You have to be on the lookout as they pop up in the market from time to time.
If you can afford to buy in this price range at least occasionally, or perhaps hint at one of these prints as a desirable gift from time to time, then together with quality lower-priced prints you’ll have an enormous range of choices in originals or reprints across the entire spectrum of available Japanese prints.
Beyond this range are high quality originals by first tier 19th and 20th Century masters, and rare originals by 18th Century greats—but that’s beyond the scope of these articles. Suffice it to say that prints in excellent condition and of exquisite beauty, historical significance and extraordinary rarity come on the market periodically—for as much as tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last point, and it’s an important one. Japanese prints are such extraordinary art that it’s easy to come under their spell and virtually become addicted to them. So many of these gems can be had for such relatively small sums that you may not notice the dollars adding up to budget-busting levels. So be warned!
© 2014 Tom Silver