Reprints, early and later editions, recuts, Heisei editions ... This is a confusing topic for art lovers and collectors of Japanese prints, who are not on an expert level. This article tries to shed some light on this tricky field in a straightforward manner and without getting into too many details.
The woodblock technique has been used for Japanese prints exclusively until around 1870 when lithography was introduced in Japan. And woodblocks have remained the dominant medium for Japanese print artists until our days.
For the creation of a Japanese color woodblock print several woodblocks have to be carved, a key-block for the outlines and one block for each color. The number of impressions, meaning print copies that can be made from one block, are limited. Guesses differ from 2000 to 10,000 copies (But many more copies are possible from a wood engraving - a slightly different medium).
With a rising number of copies, the blocks get worn off and the impression quality deteriorates. Block repairs can help to prolong the use. But at a certain point new blocks have to be cut in order to make more copies.
If you need a more detailed description of the making of a Japanese woodblock print, read the page about Japanese prints.
Let us get familiar with a few inevitable definitions of terms.
The Western art print concept is based - at least in theory - on the concept of printing a limited edition with each copy numbered, hand-signed by the artist and the plate or block destroyed afterwards.
The Japanese understanding of printmaking until the second half of the twentieth century was more that of a facsimile copy machine. Prints were not numbered and not signed, but marked with stamps that identify the publisher, the artist and sometimes the carver.
During the Shin Hanga and Sosaku Hanga period (roughly 1910 to 1960) some attempts were made to sign prints. The examples are rare and were more practiced by Western artists working in Japan like Elizabeth Keith or Paul Jacoulet and by artists with intensive travel experience in Europe and North America like Hiroshi Yoshida.
It is important to know about this basic difference in Japanese thinking to understand the somewhat messy situation that print publishers and artists have created for collectors of Japanese prints.
In 1735 the British House of Parliament passed the first copyright act, commonly known as Hogarth's Act, named after the British artist William Hogarth who had fought fervently for it. The Japanese knew nothing of that kind and successful artists like Utamaro were copied shamelessly already at life time.
With the opening of Japan to the West, a craze for everything Japanese began in Europe from around the late 1860s - mainly in France. Japanese prints were imported to Europe in large numbers and sold in department stores or specialized shops like the famous Bing Shop, which popped up everywhere like mushrooms. At the same time more and more Westerners came to Japan for business or as tourists.
Soon the demand by Westerners for cheap Japanese woodblock prints could not be met any longer with original prints. Dozens of Japanese publishing companies started to make copies of famous and less famous originals. At that time the woodblock print culture was in a very bad shape - at least economically. Lithography and photo-mechanical techniques had made it extremely hard for Ukiyo-e artists to make a living.
But the carvers and printer artisans were at the height of their technical skills. And they started to make copies of everything that Europeans liked - beautiful landscapes by Hiroshige or elegant courtesans by Utamaro to name only a few.
The ukiyo-e facsimile business remained prosperous for several decades. When Watanabe Shozaburo established his own company in 1906, it was in the beginning basically a print copy and export business. The famous artist Hashiguchi Goyo earned his living by working in the print copy business before he began to produce his own prints - encouraged by Watanabe.
Most of the copies of designs of famous artists are of excellent quality, and they are a legitimate subject for collectors. Most copies do not try to deceive and have some seals or stamps, usually on the margins, which allow their distinction from the originals. Some are less easy to identify - even for experts. A comparison with an original, the condition of colors and the paper are the major clues. For average Western art collectors who usually are not capable of reading Japanese characters, it is often an impossible task.
Surimono are privately commissioned prints in mostly square format. During the Meiji period some of the best designs were copied and sold as single prints or in complete stacks to tourists. They were mostly created in excellent quality and do not stay behind the originals in the use of lush printing techniques like mica, gofun powder or embossing.
Today's ukiyo-e art market ranks them by quality in A-copies, B-Copies, C-copies. For some of the Surimono copies no known originals exist. And that makes them even more attractive.
One of the early cases of Ukiyo-e fraud is connected with the name of Takamizawa Enji 1870-1927. His Takamizawa Woodblock Print Company, established in 1911, produced not only official copies, but perfect deceptive fakes of valuable and expensive old prints as well.
Takamizawa Enji did it partly by using old and cheap originals with faded colors and in very bad shape and then printing with newly carved blocks over the old paper. This form of deception is called rejuvenations.
Helen Merritt mentions that Watanabe called him the "demon of reproduction" and considered him what he was, a scoundrel. Nevertheless he could apparently follow his practices for years without any major disturbances and Takamizawa Enji probably would not have been noticed outside Japan if he had not deceived a prominent collector - Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yoshitoshi's successful print series like Tsuki Hyakushi - One Hundred Aspects of the Moon - are a good example of the early/late edition problem. The whole series was first published as single panels over a period of seven years from 1885 until 1892, the year of the death of Yoshitoshi.
After the artist's death, his publisher Akiyama Buemon printed posthumous editions of Tsuki Hyakushi as album sets from the original blocks. Important for collectors to know: There is no precise way like a stamp to determine whether a copy is early or late. You have to look at the impression quality and the paper and make a guess based on your experience.
The edition story of One Hundred Aspects of the Moon does not end with the album set. Years later new blocks were carved from the more popular designs and even a lithograph version is said to have been produced.
Another very popular series by Yoshitoshi is Fuzoku sanjuniso - Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners. This series was printed in several editions, which are distinguishable from slight variations in the design. The first edition was printed with three diagonal colors in the cartouche. The second edition has only two colors in the cartouche. And the third edition has no identifiable cartouche colors at all. It is a plain brown-gray.
Speaking of Yoshitoshi prints, collectors should also know that some of the very expensive designs like the famous Flute Player triptych, were reprinted from newly created blocks in recent years in excellent quality!
In 1989, with the beginning of the Heisei period in the Japanese calendar, the Watanabe Color Print Corporation, now managed by Shoichiro Watanabe, the grandson of Shozaburo Watanabe, launched a rather intensive and aggressive program of reprints of Shin Hanga designs from the original blocks. One must know that the blocks remained with the publishers.
Among collectors and art professionals these reprints are called Heisei editions. They were not to everyone's delight. The large numbers brought into the market put pressure on the market prices for earlier editions.
Watanabe Color Print Corporation applies a red, rectangular seal, called Heisei seal to these prints. However according to information we have from a knowledgeable source, not all Heisei reprints were stamped at the beginning. Thus you are back again in the old mess - having to make your assessment from impression quality, paper and guts feelings.
Watanabe is not the only publisher who started these reprints from original blocks. But he is the most important one.
Since the 1970s a number of Shin Hanga prints - mainly Bijin prints as found in the book The Female Image were published as recarved editions by Iju Kanko-kai. To our knowledge, these editions bear no special seals and are hard to detect as non-originals - a nightmare for serious collectors and honest dealers.
What should an art lover buy? Early or late editions? As so often in life, there is no black and white answer.
The passionate collector will go for early editions or editions printed during the lifetime of the artist. He pays considerably more and has to make some compromises on the condition of a print due to aging. Also if the aspect of value and reselling is important for you, go for earlier editions. And please do everything to conserve the value of your print. Put your prints into a drawer or collector folder and don't frame your print and don't hang it on your wall. This is the place where it will always suffer.
If you want to have an original piece of art for a reasonable price and want to decorate your home with it, then go for late prints and reproductions. Have your art print matted and framed and hang it on the wall of your study or living room. You will enjoy your art work for a long time.
And by the way, in contrast to its early brother, the colors of your art work will fade less - the modern colors are better. But do not expect that Sothebys or Christies will offer you a fortune for your art work one day.
We have heard of some clever collectors with the necessary financial means who put the expensive real McCoys into a safe place and enjoy copies on the walls of their home. If you can afford it, the best solution for you and the delight of every art dealer or auction house.
The trap holes for buyers of Japanese prints do exist on the Internet and they are not restricted to Ebay™. The borderline between clear fraud and a fuzzy and deceptive description is fluid. Also the omission of information can be misleading - especially for novice art buyers. "Bad descriptions" need not necessarily implicate the intention of deception. As in all sectors of life, also the ukiyo-e market has ignorant sellers.
Frequent cases of misleading descriptions that we encountered on the Internet, were about Shin Hanga Heisei editions. A reference to the year of original publication in connection with something like "dated on print" gives no chance to an unexperienced art buyer to realize that the lovely Shin Hanga design was printed after 1989.
A more blunt way is the cutting off of the margin of a Shin Hanga print where the stamp/characters identified the piece as a late reprint or recarved edition.
Finally an advice of caution for art buyers who are willing to spend a lot of money. When copies of otherwise very rare and very expensive prints suddenly pop up at different sales points at the same time, your alert level should go up at least to yellow. It could be OK. But if it looks fishy, it often is.
Author: Dieter Wanczura