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Collecting Art Prints

Item # 68227 - Tokaido Fifty-three Stations (Kichizo) - Oiso - Sold for $340 - 5/12/2016
From the series "Tokaido Goju-san Tsugi no Uchi", so-called Chuban or Kichizo Tokaido. No.9, Oiso.
By Hiroshige Ando 1797-1858

Printing from a woodblock was the earliest form of printing and was invented in China around the 9th century. To other sources it goes back to around 150 AD. Anyway - it took a long time until the knowledge of printing came to Europe. The origins of printmaking in Europe go back to the beginning of paper making around the year 1390.

Print Editions

The number of images printed in one process from the printing block or plate (woodblock, steel plate, stone, linoleum), is called an edition. The number of prints produced in one edition was (and still is) determined by commercial aspects and by limitations of the block - depending on the technique used. In the 19th century, artists started numbering an edition with the well known two number system. For example, 97/200 means that this is the 97th impression out of an edition of 200 prints. Additional signs of authenticity are often added to a print to make it authentic like an artist's signature in pencil, a seal or a stamp mark.

Unfortunately it is not as simple as in the above example. Usually an artist receives 10-15% out of an edition for his own use. These impressions are called artist's proofs and are in addition to the numbered edition.

To make things even more complicated, the publisher and/or printer sometimes receives 10-15 % out of the edition. These prints are called hors du commerce (not for commerce). In the art market, you will find the following expressions and abbreviations for these very special prints:

English artist proof a.p.
French epreuve d'artiste e.a.
French hors du commerce h.c.
Italian prova d'artista p.a.
German Kuenstlerabzug  

Original Art Prints

Sometimes artist's proofs are used to hide the real number of an edition. Another tricky way is to publish another edition - this time using roman numbers. And frequently you find yet another edition, printed on different paper. The only way to get full information on an artist's edition, is the so-called catalog raisonné (see below).

A subsequent print from an original block authorized by the artist is called a late edition. A re-strike is made from the original block, but the words are usually used for prints without the authorization of the artist - for instance posthumous prints edited by the publisher or the widow. A reproduction is a later copy of an original and is usually considered as something without any artistic or market value.

There are many discussions among experts about the question "what is an original art print". A common definition is the requirement of a manual creation of the printing block or plate by the artist and at least the subsequent supervising of the printing process. This definition can be applied for modern art prints.

However when looking at some of the old masters, these works were often produced by skillful and highly specialized carvers. And for Japanese woodblock prints, the whole process was separated between the artist who made the drawing, the carver and the printer.

Catalog Raisonne

Especially for art prints of the 20th and the 19th century, documentaries were made by scholars, publishers, art enthusiasts and sometimes by the artists themselves about all the works created by a particular artist. These documentations describing each work painstakingly with all details, are called catalog raisonné.

Printmaking Abbreviations

On old Western prints you sometimes find abbreviations taken from Latin or French words.

Latin pinx. (pinxit) painted by
  del. (delincavit) designed by
  inv. (invenit) invented by
  fec. (fecit) made by
  sculp. (sculpsit) engraved by
  inc. (incisit) engraved by
  exc. (excudit) published by
  imp. (imprenit) printed by
French dessinee par designed/painted by
  grave par engraved by
  impr. (imprime) printed by

Conservation Tips

Everybody who acquires an original art print, should feel a moral obligation to preserve a valuable cultural heritage and not only an object of market value. Here are some recommendations how to preserve a print more or less well.

The Condition of an Art Print

The market value of an art print can differ considerably depending in which condition it is. For instance, when a print has been trimmed (margins cut off) the value is lower. Click here for a list of expressions used to describe the condition of a print.

Literature source used for this article:

Soehn, Gerhard, "Kleine Grafik-Kunde", Graphik-Salon Gerhard Söhn, Düsseldorf, 1981, ISBN 3-921342-34-1.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura