Tom on Japan

Collecting Japanese Prints – Part I

Collecting Japanese PrintsPreliminaries

Before we get started there are a few preliminary points worth making. First, Japanese woodblock prints can be highly addictive—no joke. So if you’re going to collect, have some kind of budget ceiling in mind, at least initially. You can always expand your budget later, maybe at the expense of something else. But it’s hard to establish a meaningful budget unless you have some idea of exactly what you’re budgeting for. So spend some time looking at Japanese print dealer websites and take in the huge variety of their offerings. No amount of words can ever substitute for seeing the real thing. We’ve provided a brief listing of reputable dealers on the “Helpful Info” page, but you can expand on that list as much as you like by looking up Japanese print dealers online. (As we said in a previous article, we have no financial interest in recommending any particular dealers.)

Next, before you can decide what to buy you have to know how to buy. So have a look at the preceding article on this subject—“Buying Japanese Prints”—it should be helpful.

Finally, you may find your collection growing beyond the point where all of it can be displayed on your walls, even assuming you take the special precautions necessary to protect your prints from exposure to light (a subject we’ll discuss in a later article). So you’ll probably need to store at least some portion of the collection where it is safe and provided long-term protection from light and the elements.

Since this art is printed on paper rather than painted on canvas or wood, that often means storage in “archival” boxes as protection from fading and other problems which can afflict prints. The prints are placed between “interleaving” sheets of archival paper (acid and lignin-free) or in archival folders. This point is so central to the longevity of your prints and quality of the viewing experience over time that we’ll come back to it later in a separate article of its own. Suffice it to say here that the necessary archival protective materials are readily available online, and at reasonable cost.

Cost of Collecting

So how much does it take to assemble a worthwhile collection? Depends on what you mean by “worthwhile,” but what’s important is what’s worthwhile to you, not to someone else. You can build an enjoyable collection for as little as $1000-$2000, maybe even less. But first know what you’re buying so you can stretch your dollars as far as they’ll go. If you develop a real passion for Japanese prints you may start thinking about growing your collection’s size and quality over the years. Collections worth $25,000-$50,000 or much more are not at all unusual among aficionados. There are people who started out on a shoestring and ended up with major collections by the time they retired.

Approaches to Collecting

How you go about collecting probably will reflect the kind of person you are. If you‘re a methodical, highly organized person you might choose to collect in well-defined categories. Here’s an example of how specific you can get with Japanese prints. If you prefer antique over modern prints you could limit yourself to collecting from the 19th Century. And if you like landscapes you could focus on 19th Century landscapes. The two major 19th Century Japanese landscape print artists (“designers”) are Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige. [NOTE: You’ll find that many Japanese print designers used different names over the course of their artistic lifetimes. So be prepared to come across variations.] Say you decide to focus on Hiroshige. You could decide to narrow it further and collect from his first series of landscape prints which were based on the route from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto—known as 53 Stations of the Tokaido.

[NOTE: not only was the Tokaido a hugely important route in early 19th Century Japan, but it figures large in the history of 19th Century Japanese landscape prints. The modern equivalent of these “stations” might be rest stops along a major highway, offering gas, food, lodging, and a variety of supplies useful to a traveler.]

This first Hiroshige Tokaido series (there were a number of different series) often is referred to as the Hoeido Tokaido, named for the publisher who brought out the first edition of these prints in the early 1830s. So to summarize this example of collecting by category, your initial focus could be Hiroshige’s Hoeido Tokaido prints (actually reprints—the original series in reasonably good condition would cost a small fortune, assuming you could even find a seller for the entire original lifetime set, or assemble each original print individually.)

So that’s one way to collect. But if method isn’t your method and you’re a free spirit, your preferred approach may be to collect whatever strikes your fancy, regardless of category. For example you might purchase compelling landscapes, flower and bird prints, portraits, historical scenes, and kabuki actor prints.

Regardless, anyone interested in this subject should become familiar with the major categories, if only to navigate dealer websites. Often you will find dealers organizing and displaying their prints by category, before listing artists by name. In the next few articles we’ll discuss key categories—with some historical context—together with a handful of top representative artists in each category.

Series, Wormholes, and More

But first we’d like to close this article with a couple of points worth knowing. If you read dealer explanatory material carefully you’ll quickly notice the huge number of Japanese prints that do not stand on their own, but are parts of a series. We just mentioned one of the Hiroshige Tokaido series. There are also series of animal and nature subjects, bridges, waterfalls, beautiful women, historical and literary subjects, and more. So if you do like the idea of collecting in categories you can be sure of plenty from which to choose.

And our last point is this—if and when you decide to start buying Japanese prints be aware that many print photographs you see online are a general representation of what the prints actually look like in person. Photography usually doesn’t capture every detail. This is particularly true of older prints, which invariably have condition issues of one kind or another—unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money for an unusually well-preserved print. One hundred years ago and even more recently little thought was given to preserving the original, pristine look of a brand new print. Even if a print buyer had thought about preservation, the knowledge just wasn’t there back then. Today we know all about problems which bedevil works of art on paper, and how to prevent those problems—or at least keep them from getting worse.

But if you choose to collect older prints without spending a fortune you’re going to have to live with issues like “toning,” “mat burn,” soiling, creasing, repaired wormholes, or other issues we‘ll discuss in a separate, later article—together with how to care for your prints over time. Just be aware that experienced collectors look through these often superficial issues to the underlying quality and beauty of the artist’s work itself. And there are excellent print restorers who do quite a nice job cleaning up older prints, though some argue that prints should show their age in most or even every respect. Signs of age are part of their history and character, some say. After you put some experience behind yourself, you can decide that question for yourself. But now it’s time to move on to the prints themselves.

© 2014 Tom Silver


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