The Value of Japanese Prints

By Utamaro Kitagawa
By Utamaro Kitagawa - Lovers - Osome and Hisamatsu
Lovers - Osome and Hisamatsu
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"What is my print worth?" is a question almost every fledgling collector seems driven to ask.

First Publication: 2004
Latest Update: March 2014

What is my Print Worth?

The question is perfectly natural: you have just summoned up the courage to spend far more on a single sheet of paper than you are likely accustomed to, and you want to be sure that the purchase was not in error. Or perhaps you have discovered an old print in an attic or rummage sale, and you want to know what you have. Is it a great find? A good one? Or are you getting all excited about nothing?

The question begs affirmation. For the would-be collector, the desired answer is actually less the dollar sign than the thumbs up, proof that one's excitement about the piece of paper in one's hands is justified. And what better way to establish the value of the work than with a good, solid number, an objective sign of its recognized value on the general market?

What is the Market Value?

By Hiroshige I (Ando)
By Hiroshige I (Ando) - Miura - 36 Views of Mt.Fuji
Miura - 36 Views of Mt.Fuji
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But a print, however fine, is but a scrap of colored paper. A diamond is but a rock and gold but a hunk of metal. These things are valuable to the extent that they are desired, and that their availability is limited. Neither term is enough to establish value on its own.

The experience of filling one's lungs with air is absolutely desirable - even miraculous if we pay close attention to it - but none of us would pay for it under ordinary circumstances. The experience of being vivisected by high IQ aliens on Mars would be quite rare, but none of us would pay for that either.

Demand and Supply

It is the convergence of mass desirability with limited supply that creates market value, and that is all. Market value is no guarantee of beauty, excellence or the aesthetic experience. It is an approximate indication of the current evaluation of a print's desirability and rarity, but these terms are approximate, never permanent, always subject to change.

Fifty years ago, the name Yoshitoshi was hardly known, and his prints were plentiful and cheap. Today, prints by Yoshitoshi are among the most demanded pieces and fetch high prices. Tomorrow, as tastes change, or collectors become satiated, the market value of his prints may drop. But the prints themselves have not changed in the slightest.

The Value of Market Value

By Yoshitoshi Tsukioka
By Yoshitoshi Tsukioka - Demon at Rashomon Gate
Demon at Rashomon Gate

There are doubtless those who collect Japanese prints as they would purchase stocks, buying low and selling high, seeking the unrecognized genius or undervalued work, and there is nothing particularly wrong with this.

But for collectors who wish to keep their prints, who wish to gather around them a collection of works with which they can interact meaningfully, that represent an artist, a theme or a movement, and that gain meaning by being placed in connection with one another, consideration of market value can have only a secondary place.

Collector or Gatherer?

Of course one would not wish to purchase a print priced seriously at odds with the current going rate - though for the sake of shaping the collection one might even occasionally make such a sacrifice. And since most budgets are limited, price and market value will play some consideration in the decision to purchase.

But a collection that is made or a print that is appreciated with the market value as a foremost consideration will have no value at all. One is still a gatherer - not a collector - of prints, until one learns to assess value with one's own eyes, according to one's own set of values.

How the Market Assigns Values

Don't be fooled into thinking that the values assigned to Japanese prints by dealers on the market have any objectivity, or in any way reflect the actual value a print may have for you. Rather, prices are based on conventions, and these conventions merely reflect a mutually agreed upon set of values, which may not be your values at all.

Artist's Signature

On the market, for example, one of the first and foremost indicators of value for original prints tends to be one of the most absurd standards imaginable, the artist's signature. The signature represents an easy handle, an immediate context in which to place the print. And there is certainly excitement (and easy bragging rights) in having an original print by an acknowledged master.

But take the Hiroshige signature away from one of those late, shoddy impressions, made years after the artist's original inspiration, and you merely have a poor print; add it, and you have a fairly valuable piece, by name value alone. Yet is this a piece you would want for your collection, to admire in your quiet moments?

For Instance Kunisada

By Kunisada Utagawa
By Kunisada Utagawa - Beauty with Fan
Beauty with Fan
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At the opposite extreme, the prints of Kunisada (Toyokuni III) are the most plentiful in ukiyo-e, and many excellent impressions of interesting designs appear at moderate prices for this very reason. Thus the relative evaluation of a designer's overall merits, in a most bizarre way, affects the value given to any particular design.

This method of assigning price acts as a bar to works by the "masters", but allows easy access to other works, which, if more carefully examined, might be more highly evaluated.

Conditions and Impressions

Once an approximate range of value for an original work has been determined by the signature, another set of criteria is generally employed to establish the exact value within that range.

Condition and impression are primary concerns for the market value, and if there are serious detriments, the value of the print will be drastically altered, with poor prints selling for but a small fraction of what a fine example of the same design might be worth.

Curiously, these evaluations still work within the ranges established for a particular artist. A tanned, barely visible and essentially worthless shadow of a print by Utamaro will still sell for many times what a tanned, barely visible and essentially worthless shadow of a print by Kunisada will fetch.

At the opposite extreme, prints in early impressions or exceptionally fine condition will reach the outer limits of the particular artist's scale of value.

Subject Matters

Beyond artist and impression/condition, there are a number of other factors that may influence the value of a print.

The subject matter is of course a major concern, probably the only one that can trump the artist's name in the assigning of value. Unusual themes are highly valued, with the supernatural or fantastic typically more highly priced than the ordinary subject, the detailed more than the general, outdoor scenes more than domestic etc.

Date, Formats and Prints from Series

Date (usually subsumed within the artist's name) is a major concern if the artist is minor or anonymous, or has a long or uneven career, as with Toyokuni I.

Unusual formats, such as fan prints, pillar prints, or surimono are highly valued by the market.

In general, prints from series fetch higher values than unlabelled kabuki prints for specific performances, particularly if the latter are single sheets from diptychs or triptychs.

Determination of Market Value

Triptych by Kunichika Toyohara
Triptych by Kunichika Toyohara - Ghost Riders - Kabuki
Ghost Riders - Kabuki
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Some evaluation of a work's aesthetic value may certainly come in with these secondary considerations, but note that it is so often secondary. A print with the Utamaro signature, even if it is a rather poor, late design difficult to distinguish from Utamaro II, will be highly valued, whereas a Kunichika triptych, however fine, will typically be capped in price.

Of course, this is a rough and approximate account of how market value is actually determined, and each dealer will have his/her own methods and ranges for assigning price. Nonetheless, it is not until you have developed your eye to see beyond the vagaries of market price and evaluate the merits of prints on your own that the collecting adventure can truly begin.

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Dan McKee
Edited by Dieter Wanczura

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