Tom on Japan

Protecting and Displaying Prints – Part II

Collecting Japanese PrintsIn the last article we ended by introducing the idea of using archival clamshell boxes for storing and displaying your Japanese prints. We’ll continue that discussion here by giving you lots of very specific, usable ideas.

Choosing and Using Archival Boxes

Archival boxes come in a variety of sizes to accommodate the broad range of print sizes. The box most likely to fit the lion’s share of your print sizes comfortably is 16" x 20". Manufacturers typically add a fraction of an inch to surface dimensions to insure against a little overage in print size. So a 20" length may really be more like 20 3/8". Choosing between the standard options of a 1" or 2" box height depends on the number of prints you have or will store in each box. And by the way, choose boxes which lie flat, horizontally. You don’t want prints standing vertically and bowing out within a box.

Another thing you don’t want is a box laden with so many prints that the load bearing down on bottom prints affects paper and pigment integrity. Since the quality and thickness of Japanese print paper varies, there is no standard as to how many prints—and their folder housing discussed below—should go into a single box. If a stack of prints feels too heavy, it probably is too heavy. So err on the side of caution.

In addition to that 16" x 20" box, you also might buy 9" x 12" and 20" x 24" boxes to accommodate both small and oversized prints, respectively. Japanese prints in triptych (three panel prints) typically come unattached at the seams—meaning that each panel is a separate and distinct print, and so may be stored apart from the other two in a normal size archival box. Triptychs which are attached at the seams normally come folded in thirds, and therefore also will fit in a normal size box. But for these triptychs you should place archival paper (see below) or archival tissue paper in the folds to prevent panels from rubbing against, and possibly damaging, each other.

I highly recommend that when you shop for archival boxes you not go for a bargain–priced box. Such boxes may not have been processed for true long-term protection from acids, and thus don’t really deserve to be called “archival,” although advertised as such. A serviceable 16" x 20" x 2" box should sell in the $50-$100 range. So shop around.

Making Archival Folders

But a good archival box is not the end of the matter. You don’t want a pile of prints lying loose in a box one on top of another where friction can remove pieces of pigment. The solution here is to purchase archival–quality file folders—or better still, sheets of archival-quality paper which you can convert into your own folders. Not only are paper folders less expensive than purchased folders, but they take up less room in the box—which may mean fewer required boxes and therefore more money available for prints! Efficiency matters.

This archival paper sometimes is referred to as “interleaving sheets.” You may find this paper sold in sheets too large for your archival boxes even when the sheets are folded over. So first they must be cut down to size and only then folded, resulting in paper folders into which your prints will fit snug and protected from rubbing against each other. The proper folder size for a 16" x 20" box is approximately 15.5" x 19.5", which will keep your folders from bulking up within the box. This means cutting an oversize interleaving sheet down to 31" x 19.5". The 31 inches when folded gets you to 15-1/2 inches, while the 19-1/2 inch length stays as is.

If you have many prints it’s a pain in the neck to have to cut each individual sheet—or even two or three sheets at a time—to proper size. So consider taking the whole stack of paper to a shop which will do the job for you using automated equipment. Just be sure you give the right dimensions—or you may find yourself buying a whole new stack of interleaving paper. Make a hand-cut template before going to the shop so you can be sure they’ll have the right size.

As a convenience to our readers we’ve included links here to a selection of well-known dealers in these materials. You’ll find them in the Japanese Prints section of “Helpful Info.” As with all listings there, we have no financial interest in, or financial relationship with any of them.

Making Archival Booklets

Back to those paper folders. You may remember from an earlier article that a huge number of Japanese prints do not stand on their own but are parts of a series. (In a previous article we cited Ogata Gekko’s Comparison of Beauties and Flowers, a 24-print series.) Many collectors make a point of staying within series which interest them for at least some of their print purchases. If you too decide to collect prints at least partly within series why not make a booklet to house them, rather than use a separate folder for each individual print?

It’s simple to do. Just nest one folder within another until you have sufficient page separations for each print you own within a particular series. You may choose to leave room in the booklet for future purchases within that series. I wouldn’t staple or bind the booklet’s pages in any way because you may want flexibility for even more pages than planned if you add prints down the road. Staples in particular could damage the prints. By using this booklet idea you can conveniently house and view your print series without wasting interleaving paper sheets—which is what would happen if you use a separate folder for every print within a series. And you’ll have the satisfaction of superb organization.

But a word of caution. Too many nested folders in a single archival box may cause one or more booklets to bulk up, which in turn may prevent prints within from lying perfectly flat. You definitely don’t want prints with a permanent curvature. Not only would that be unsightly but it would have a decidedly negative effect on market value should you ever decide to sell. Depending on print dimensions and paper thickness, you probably should limit each booklet to a maximum of 6 to 10 prints. Eyeball the booklet and feel it’s bulk to determine when enough is enough. If you gently place each print closer to the booklet’s opening than to where all of the folds meet in the center (and have a tendency to bulk up), you will further ensure that your prints lie flat.

Proper Humidity for Print Storage

A piece of paper is a paltry thing. Too much dampness on a regular basis can cause fungal growth, resulting in brownish spots known as “foxing.” Rare book collectors are very familiar with this common condition issue in older books. Japanese prints can suffer from it as well. And there’s nothing like a damp pile of prints in a dark, closed box to attract silverfish, which can badly damage your prints.

The first rule is to use common sense. Keep your prints out of bathrooms, attics and basements—where humidity can be high and varying. A relative humidity range of 40 to 65% should not cause a problem. Obviously an unair-conditioned summer home near water is no place to store or display Japanese prints. But if you continually run much below 40% you could have the opposite problem—excessively dry, brittle paper.

Margins, Trimming and Touching

One last point. Many older prints and reprints have little or nothing in the way of margins surrounding the print subject matter itself. It was common to trim margins to make the print fit “right” for display—on walls, “pillars,” or in albums. But if your print does have margins, use them for picking up the print and moving it around. Use both hands to do this. No knowledgeable collector today would even think of trimming margins, which are a definite plus and usually add to a print’s value.

© 2014 Tom Silver


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