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any collectors ask if there is an easy rule of thumb that will enable them to buy a print with confidence. alas, no simple rule exists. While patterns are evident and generalizations may be made, one must recognize that there are always exceptions. As with any discipline, the best thing one can do is to examine and handle materials, study, ask questions, and seek advice from experts. While volumes have been written on the subject of prints, here are some basic guidelines that should be helpful.

What is an original print, a restrike, a reproduction?

Fig. 1: The Waterfall of Niagra, by Robert Hancock, after a drawing by Louis Hennepin, London, 1794. Line engraving with hand coloring. 91/4 x 151/4 inches. Courtesy, The Philadelphia Print Shop.

Original prints: An original print is made at the initial printing during the first run. There can be just one or hundreds of prints made at this point. To properly assess whether a print is an original, a collector must know some biographical information about the creator, and how, when, and with what materials a print was made. This history is important because people, methods, materials, and design are products of a specific time, and all the factors should align.

Restrikes use the same plates as the original, but are second-generation prints made after the first run. The span between an original and a restrike can range anywhere from a month’s time to several centuries. While usually less desirable than originals, restrikes are sometimes the only prints that are available, or for that matter, affordable.

Reproductions: There are many types of reproductions. Perhaps the most common is created when copies are made by taking photographs of an original print. Another technique is to prepare an entirely new plate using the original graphic process. case study: To illustrate the above distinctions, let us consider prints associated with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). A copper-plated print made during Rembrandt’s lifetime would beconsidered an original; such a print would be the most desirable and valuable. Some of Rembrandt’s plates still exist today. Restrike printings using these plates can be found dating from four centuries, with the most recent having the least value. A photographic reproduction is the type one might find at a museum shop.

Fig. 2: “Thrown Out on Second,” from Harper’s Weekly. New York, 10 September 1887. Wood engraving. 13 7/8 x 20 3/8 inches. Courtesy, The Philadelphia Print Shop.

Identifying the type of print

There are three categories of antique original prints: intaglio, relief, and planographic. They are defined by the plate or block from which the image is printed. The intaglio and relief processes have been available since the Renaissance and are still in use today.

Intaglio: An intaglio print is created by cutting into a metal plate so that the ink flows into the grooves. When dampened paper contacts the ink, a line adheres to the paper surface. Ink stands on top of the paper in the form of a dark line or dot; sometimes a raised surface can be perceived by a gentle touch (with clean hands of course).

As a result of the pressure from the plate and paper being pressed together during the printing process, a border or plate mark is usually detectable. Intaglio prints include aquatints, engravings, line engravings, etchings, drypoint, mezzotints, stipple prints, and other variations on the technique [Fig. 1].

Relief: A relief print is created when the surface of a printing block or matrix is cut away so that only the desired image remains raised. Pressure during printing is light in comparison to the intaglio process so as not to push the ink off the image and cause a blurred image. Prints from such blocks are woodcuts, wood engravings, or block prints [Fig. 2].

Planographic: This technique was invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As the science of chemistry came of age, printmakers learned how to apply solids and liquids to a flat surface so that applied ink would be attracted or rejected. This process is called lithography. A slight impression can sometimes be seen from the printing process. Terms such as stone lithograph or chromolithograph are used to define antique prints made with this process [Fig. 3].

Fig. 3: “Great White Heron,” from The Birds of America. New York:
J. Bien, 1860. Chromolithograph with touches of hand-coloring after John James Audubon. Elephant folio size. Courtesy, The Philadelphia Print Shop.

A final word

Armed with some of the basic definitions of what comprises a print, regarding the various versions and techniques, a general sense of art history is also useful in the process of evaluation, for the subject matter of prints encompasses categoriesas diverse as ancient architecture to outsider art. Most people know more than they realize, because in this day and age we are surrounded by decorative and fine art inspired by design sources from the past. Familiarity with what is accurate and appropriate for a period is helpful in the process of identification. When uncertain, consult a specialist.

Suggested Reading
Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints. Thames and Hudson: London, 1986.

Lane, Christopher W. et al. What is a Print? A Discussion and Glossary of Print Processes and Terms. Philadelphia Print Shop: Philadelphia, 1994.

Zigrosser, Carl, and Christa M. Gaehde. A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints. Crown: New York, 1965.

Donald H. Cresswell, Ph.D., is proprietor of the Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Cresswell has published widely, teaches and lectures, serves on the committees of distinguished library societies, and is an appraiser for the Antiques Road Show on PBS.

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