Buying ukiyo-e – what to avoid

In the last few years I’ve been looking at lots of ukiyo-e auctions, buying some prints and getting experience in what to watch out for. We all make a lot of mistakes too when we start out so don’t worry too much … as they say in the antiques world, it’s just “paying to learn”. But in this article I wanted to just go over some of the things to watch out for in auctions, to help you avoid some of the problems. 

As a basic rule we are all trying to find prints that look as close as possible to the way they did when they were first made. Any alterations or damage done to them in the meantime will affect the value and might also make them degrade faster over time. 

Trimming

You have to remember that the vast majority of ukiyo-e was bought by ordinary people – the merchant classes who thrived in the cities and around whom the “floating world” (ukiyo) culture sprang up. These merchants were well educated and had both time and money on their hands so a subculture revolving around kabuki theatre, partying, courtesans & geishas and the cult of celebrity. Ukiyo-e were always intended to be cheap art for the masses and could usually be bought for no more than the cost of a couple of bowls of noodles. It was equivalent in some ways to the modern day poster or fan merchandise – bought by fans of the artists, girls and the actors they portrayed.

There are few accounts of what collectors did with their prints but it is clear that they would often trim off the edges to make them fit into albums, envelopes or frames. Clearly though, losing strips of the image (even the white edges) is going to affect the value to collectors so watch out for this when you buy. If only the white borders have been cut off then this can be OK but often the white borders were where they would put details about the publisher and the date of the printing so it can be a big negative. 

Backing

Only buy a print if you have seen the back of it … there, that’s easy! No, seriously – ukiyo-e is always printed onto thin sheets of washi paper and would not have been backed at the time it was made so you should be able to see the ink bleeding through from the obverse side. In the past owners were convinced to strengthen them by applying a backing paper, which could be anything from another few sheets of plain paper to sheets of spare newspaper (shudders!). It’s actually quite common to see handwritten notes on scrap paper stuck to the back of ukiyo-e. 

This in itself doesn’t necessary harm the print because often the work was done with non-acid papers and glues, but it does always affect the value slightly. Also, backed triptychs are often glued together too, which makes storage a little more awkward, having to Z-fold the sheets (or even worse – roll them!) and put strain on the “hinged” parts. Inevitably this will lead to tears and pages coming apart and this is never good.

Damage

The years can be very unkind to ukiyo-e sheets – if they get wet the paper can be stained and although Edo period inks were very colour-fast, the analine dyes used in the Meiji period are very water soluble and run/bleed if the paper has ever been made damp. This is especially true of the reds and purples. Ink can be transferred to other sheets or just spread, which is a real turn-off for most collectors.

Obviously, with delicate paper you also get occasional tears but also the places where they were stored were often riddled with pests which would nibble the paper. Bookworm beetles seem to have been very common in the Edo period and you’ll often see pages with holes or zig-zagging tunnels cut into them by insects. This is unlikely to get any worse because we look after them now in relatively pest free environments but the damage can be unsightly.

Fading

Clearly, images are designed to be looked at and collectors would have pinned or stuck them up on their walls even in the Edo period. While this is a natural thing for anyone to want to do, exposure to sunlight causes the inks to change and to fade – often causing the yellows and greens to go first, followed by the reds and finally the blues/purples. Modern day collectors usually pay very strict attention to this and only display their prints in rooms that do not have direct outside light and in frames that are glazed with anti-UV museum glass, but this isn’t always the case and often prints that have been picked up as decorative objects in antique shops are in a fairly poor condition and there’s nothing you can do to get the colours back once lost.

Fading is another big no-no for me and I will pass on any image that shows fading.

Browned paper – acidity

When it comes to long term storage most museum curators will tell you that, beyond pest control, light and physical damage, what they fear most is acidic conditions. You’ll often see papers and inks described nowadays as “archival quality” and what this means is that they have a neutral pH and will not only be stable over time and not change chemically but that they will not negatively affect the things around them either.

As luck would have it, most of the early prints (especially in the Edo period) seem to have been made on acid-free paper and the inks were also archival quality so they have lasted very well. But in the Meiji period I think mechanisation and “modern”, cheaper production systems developed which introduced papers that contained acid and inks that contained chemicals that degrade badly over time. Be particularly suspicious of any print backed with news print because this was the lowest quality of paper and was often very acidic. 

This is probably the worst form of degradation you can find in ukiyo-e and I will always avoid them now because not only are the images uniformly darkened, they will continue to get worse over time and there is very little you can do to halt the damage without washing the paper which would cause the inks to bleed. 

Framed prints

I actually picked up this lovely trio of prints knowing they were framed but I would normally avoid them because the shipping costs are huge! Framed prints are fairly common in auction so you have to be really careful to understand what you are bidding on otherwise you could be left with something that will cost you a lot more than you budgeted for.

In this case though I picked up the first 2 for £10 each and I’d worked out that if I sent them surface mail and just waited a few months the landed cost would be about the same price as the prints themselves were worth AND I’d get some professionally framed prints to put on my walls (accepting all the rules on not exposing them to sunlight). I was half expecting that the glass could have broken in transit but I shouldn’t have worried because they came beautifully wrapped and protected from my Japanese agent.

Conclusion

Obviously, all these factors should influence whether you buy a print and you might disagree with me on which will prevent you buying something. But I just wanted to point out things to watch out for when buying so that you buy given the fullest knowledge of what you are getting for your money.