Monday, April 27, 2009

Collecting Antique Prints; part 2

In an earlier post, I explained how in order to be a collector, one needs to approach acquiring prints using criteria, and I talked about the collecting criterion of having a theme to one's collection. Today I'll talk about the criteria of publishing history and condition.

Publishing history: A collector must establish rules of acquisition concerning the publishing history of the prints under consideration. This history describes how an impression was created and what place it occupies within the universe of different versions of the print. It includes the state and edition of the print and whether it is a proof, original strike, restrike, reproduction or facsimile.

The question of edition can be quite important. Many collectors limit their collections to first editions, but each print must be judged independently, for the first edition is not always the most significant and differences between editions can be historically insignificant. In terms of print states, generally this is not of great importance for historical prints. However, unusual and rare states can have an extra value and interest to collectors.

The desirability of particular states or editions must be balanced against the likelihood of acquisition, given availability and price. Also, while first editions or rare states can be nice, sometimes the extra cost is not warranted by the purpose of the collection.

Generally, historical print collectors eschew restrikes, reproductions and facsimiles. (Read about restrikes and reproductions in earlier blogs) There is nothing wrong with such prints for some purposes, but they usually are not considered "collectible."

Condition: Condition is also a very important collecting criterion. Though the definition of “good condition” is difficult and relative, an inherently useful rule-of-thumb is to acquire only prints in good or better than good condition. This is important for the appearance and overall quality of the collection. A single print in poor condition stands out in a collection of prints in good condition, and an entire collection in poor condition in not likely to make a very handsome presentation. Most collectors enjoy exhibiting and owning a high quality collection, and prints in poor condition can tarnish that enjoyment.

Also, good condition is important for the value of the collection. Even if one pays considerably less for a damaged print than for a print in good condition, it is likely to be more difficult to recoup one’s investment through resale than it would be for a more expensive print in better condition. Damaged prints rarely rise much in value and are always harder to sell.

A collector should be somewhat flexible in his application of the criterion of condition, for some prints are so scarce that the condition of any available example is relatively unimportant, and certain prints are affordable or obtainable only in relatively poor condition.

A collector needs to consider why he or she is collecting in order to decide how strictly to apply the criterion of condition. If a collector wants to build a “museum quality” collection, or one with maximum market value, then strict application of this criterion is imperative. If, on the other hand, the collection is intended for personal enjoyment, then a more relaxed application of this criterion is appropriate. A collection intended for display can include pieces that are attractive but which fall short of being in good condition. Someone who intends to build a comprehensive collection will probably need to include prints in less than ideal condition, especially for some of the rarer prints. The time frame for collecting is also relevant. If the collection is a life-long project, then a strict application of the criterion would be appropriate, whereas if the collection is to be built within a short time, more flexibility is warranted.

As a general rule, however, one should buy prints in less than good condition only if the problems are relatively minor and examples in better condition are unobtainable due to scarcity or cost.

(Click here to go to part 3 of collecting antique prints)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Originals and restrikes

Original prints can be divided into those that are original strikes and those that are restrikes. An original strike of a print is one that was printed as part of the original publishing venture, or as part of a directly connected, subsequent publishing venture. This contrasts with a restrike, which is a print that was produced from the original hand-made matrix, but that was printed at a later time as part of new publishing venture.

This is a bit vague and it isn’t always clear when to call a print a restrike or just a later edition of the original. However, the basic idea is whether a print is-—both in time and intent—-part of a direct continuation of the original production or whether it is distant in time and intent. For instance, prints from the second edition of Mark Catesby’s Natural History (1754) are clearly just a later edition of the first edition prints (1731-43). The second edition was published by Mark Catesby’s friend, George Edwards, and they were intended simply as a reissue of the first edition. They are close in both time and intent.

Catesby's prints were issued several times after the second edition, with prints struck as late as 1815 (identifiable because of the dated watermarks). In contrast to the second edition prints, I would consider these nineteenth century prints to be restrikes, not simply later editions. These prints were issued about three-quarters of a century after the first edition and the intent of their publication then was quite different than when Catesby first issued his Natural History. When first issued, Catesby's prints were new, scientific plates of the wildlife from a distant and still relatively unknown land. By the early nineteenth century, the plates were as much, if not more, decorative as opposed to scientific prints.

But what about those prints from the third edition, issued in 1771 by Benjamin White? This is closer in time and intent to the original edition, but still the publication was many decades later and the publishing venture was done for quite different reasons than Catesby’s original intent. So an argument could be made either way. I tend to think of these as original Catesby prints, but one can also consider them as restrikes.

Of course, the term “restrike” is one we use for convenience, simply expressing a different way we can look at a print. There is no absolute parameters for the term that allows one to determine whether a print is a restrike or not. This is unlike with the notion of a reproduction (cf. earlier blog) where the definition determines absolutely whether a print is an original print or a reproduction. It is not so simple with the notion of a restrike, for a restrike is an original print because it is printed from a matrix made by hand. It is simply an original print that we consider to be separated in time and intent from the early strikes. So, what difference does it make whether a print is an original strike or a restrike?
There are a number of ways a restrike differs from an early strike that might make a difference. First, if one looks at a print as an historic artifact, an object that played a part in our history, then a restrike is quite different than an original strike. A restrike, being made later and as part of a different publishing venture, will not have the same connection with our history as an original strike. So, for instance, a print of the War of 1812 issued about 1815, is an object which played a role at the time, whereas a twentieth century restrike has meaning only as a reflection of our past, not as part of it.
Another way in which a restrike can differ materially from an original strike is in terms of quality. Over time, the matrix can become worn or damaged, and so restrike impressions will often not have the same quality as an early strike. Sometimes copper plates are steel faced, which can prevent wear, but most restrikes are of lesser quality than early strikes. This is particularly noticeable in British sporting prints, which were often printed and reprinted many times over a long period of time (some nineteenth century prints are still being printed in London today!). The restrikes are often quite worn, with texture and background detail lacking. One clue to spot a restrike is that they are often more heavily colored than early strikes, as the publisher tries to hide the plate wear by adding extra color. This can be seen in many British sporting prints and also in the early nineteenth century Catesby prints.
In terms of value, these two material differences between original strikes and restrikes (historical context and quality) mean that the latter are of considerably less value than the former. The further distant a restrike is from an early impression in either of these factors, the less will be the value of the restrike relative to the original. Quality always matters, so worn impressions will be worth considerably less than a sharp first strike. Interestingly, the distance in historical context doesn’t matter for some prints, for instance with British sporting prints, so if the quality of these prints is close to that of the early strikes, so too will be the value. For other prints, however, such as political cartoons, the historical context matters a lot, so an impression from years later, even one with no drop-off in quality, will have considerably less value than a period impression.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Intaglio prints: part 1

An intaglio print is one whose image is printed from a recessed design incised or etched into the surface of a plate. In this type of print the ink lies below the surface of the plate and is transferred to the paper under pressure. The printed lines of an intaglio print stand in relief on the paper.

An itaglio print has a platemark, which is the ridge in the paper surrounding the image, the result of the compression of the paper from the plate and press. This is one of the ways to tell an original print from a reproduction, however, some reproductions have a false or fake platemark. False platemarks have a shape that can usually be recognized (this is hard to describe, but once you have seen a number it becomes fairly obvious), and also false plate marks are often too far away from the printed image. Remember that for older prints, the copper plates used were expensive, so plates were kept as small as possible. This means that the platemarks on original print from before the mid-19th century tend to be very close around the image.

There is a large variety of different types of intaglio prints, including engravings, etchings, mezzotints, aquatints, and stipples. The two most common are engravings and etchings, and we'll look a bit more carefully at those two processes in today's blog.


An engraving (also called a line engraving) is made by incising a design into a metal plate by applying pressure to the plate with a pointed tool called a graver or burin. The term “engraving” is sometimes used to refer in general to all intaglio prints, with the term “line engraving” used to refer to engravings per se, but this is strictly speaking an incorrect usage of the term.

Engravings were among the first of the intaglio processes to be developed. The earliest known line engravings were issued in the fifteenth century. Probably the majority of intaglio prints produced before 1900 were engravings. Strong lines and sharp definition are characteristic of engravings. A method of engraving in a steel plate, which allows for finer detail and many more impressions than does copper, was developed in the early 19th century.


An etching (also called a line etching) is created by covering a metal plate with an acid-resistant layer of wax--called a ground-–and drawing a design through the ground using an etching needle. The plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the exposed lines, thus etching the design into the plate. After dipping the plate in acid, sections of the design can be stopped out with varnish and the plate immersed in the acid again. This creates a deeper bite, and thus darker lines, for those areas not stopped out.

The etching process was also invented very early, first appearing around the fourteenth century as a method of making decorations on armor. The earliest known printed etching was by Urs Graf and is dated 1513. The technique was perfected in the middle of the seventeenth century by Rembrandt. Etching allows for a freer artistic hand than does engraving, but etched plates tend to wear more quickly than engraved plates.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Collecting Antique Prints

What does it mean to collect antique prints?

Collecting does not have to involve spending large sums of money; large expenditure is neither sufficient nor necessary for collecting antique prints. Though an individual unwilling to spend a reasonable amount of money when the opportunity arises cannot be thought of as a collector, he or she certainly can collect antique prints and spend less than $100 a year. Collecting does not mean buying only “important” prints; every collection has its own universe of appropriate prints and each of these is important relative to the collection even if they are not “important” in a more general sense. Finally, collecting does not mean necessarily having a large number of items in one’s collection; a collection can consist of a very few pieces or more than a thousand. Collecting is best described not by how much one spends, nor by what one acquires, nor by the number of pieces, but by the way in which the collection is developed. A collector can be distinguished from an acquirer by the approach he or she takes to collecting. There are three components to a collector’s approach: criteria, knowledge, and preservation.


The most important aspect of a collector’s approach to acquiring prints is the establishment of criteria for collecting. Every buyer wants to acquire prints which appeal to him or her and to avoid those which are not pleasing. A collector, however, uses a more rigorous set of standards than simply personal appeal. Someone who purchases any print which catches his or her fancy is an acquirer. A collector selects prints using a set of criteria which include rules for choosing prints based on theme, publishing history, and condition. Today I'll discuss the collector criterion of having a collection theme.

Theme: The most important collecting criterion is that of a theme or topic for the collection. The theme of a collection is that characteristic which the prints share that turns the assemblage into a single entity, rather than simply a group of prints. A theme can consist of a single subject, such as views of Niagara Falls; a printmaker or group of printmakers, as in prints engraved by Philadelphia craftsmen or prints after Hogarth; a printmaking process, such as mezzotinting; or any other shared characteristic, such as newspaper bonus prints.

A theme can be comprehensive for the chosen subject, or limited to prints issued in a certain period, such as prints published before the nineteenth century. Pretty much any subject related to prints can be a theme; the important notion is that a theme limits the universe of prints to be collected; a theme is what ties the individual prints together into the united entity which is a collection.

Unless a collector chooses an extremely broad subject, most prints will fall outside of the thematic scope of his or her collection. Generally the collector will need to do a fair amount of looking and exploring in order to find prints which fit the chosen theme. Indeed, the search for appropriate prints is a significant component of collecting. All collectors enjoy the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of discovery. One certainly would not want to set the theme so narrowly that no prints could ever be found which fall within the range of the collection, but there should be enough of a limitation that some aspect of a search or hunt is retained.

Anyone interested in starting a collection should choose a theme carefully. It should be of interest to the collector, for exploration of the theme can be wonderful source of enjoyment. Also, the beginning collector should consider a theme for which relevant prints are both available and affordable, so it is a good idea for a beginning collector to try to learn about the cost and availability of prints which fall within its scope. One might be very interested in large, bird’s-eye views of Chicago, but these prints are both scarce and expensive, so only someone with ample resources will be able to build a meaningful collection of these prints. It might be just as interesting to collect any views of Chicago, including wood engravings from newspapers like Harper's Weekly and that would widen the field considerably, but still allow for the acquisition of a block-buster bird's eye view if one came along at an affordable price.

The theme that a collector chooses is the foundation of the collection and so the collector should spend time in selecting the subject. The theme can, of course, change over time, and the collection can be culled or expanded as the collector's interest changes. Selecting a theme, however, is not the only thing that makes a collector, and in a future blog I will discuss other criterion.

(Click here to go to part 2 of collecting antique prints)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Shadows Antique Print Mystery series

I am a big fan of mysteries and so was delighted when I found out that there was a series of mysteries that revolved around antique prints. This is the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series written by Lea Wait, an antique print dealer from Maine. Lea is a fourth generation antiques dealer who started her own business in 1977. Lea lives in Maine and does antique shows, as well a writing both her mystery series and historical novels for children.

Lea began her print series with Shadows at the Fair, which was a finalist for the prestigious Agatha Award for Best First Traditional Mystery in 2002. I have found the books, which feature an antique print dealer named Maggie Summer, to be well written, good mysteries, and a lot of fun. I especially enjoy the way that prints play a part in the stories and Lea’s accurate description of the world of antique dealers.

You can read more about Lea and her books on her web site, but she kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

CWL: How did you come to start writing antique print mysteries?

LW: I've always supported myself by writing, but I for many years I wrote corporate nonfiction. I wrote my first Shadows Antique Print Mystery to prove to myself I could write a full-length novel. Then, in 1998, I took an early retirement offer, moved to Maine, and started writing (and dealing in antique prints!) full time. My first book to be published was an historical novel for young people, Stopping to Home. My editor at Simon & Schuster heard I'd also written a mystery, and she told a friend at Scribner, and my mysteries found a home there.

CWL: Where did the name the series (and of Maggie’s antique print business) come from?

LW: As it says in Shadows at the Fair, "[Maggie] named the business Shadows because that's what old prints were -- outlines of worlds to which the doors have closed; shadows of pasts that have vanished except for memories and remembrances."

CWL: You introduce each chapter with a description of an antique print. How does this tie into your stories?

LW: Each description is a clue ... if there is a print of a snake at the beginning of a chapter, watch out! The books also have themes which are reflected in the prints. For example, Shadows on the Coast of Maine features Winslow Homer wood engravings because of the Winslow Homer -- Maine connection, even though the engravings were done before Homer actually moved to Prout's Neck. And Shadows at the Spring Show is about a murder connected with an antique show benefiting an adoption agency, so most of the featured prints are by illustrators like Jessie Willcox Smith, who specialized in drawing or painting children.

CWL: Maggie Summer must to some extent be based on yourself. How are you and Maggie the same and how different?

LW: Maggie isn't really me -- she's young, and much braver! But she does have a "day job," as I did for many years. She's a widow; I was divorced very young. We both love Dry Sac Sherry. And one other major theme in the books ... Maggie is 38, and is feeling her biological clock ticking, so is considering adopting a child. I didn't wait until I was 38, but I adopted four children (ages 4-10) as a single parent when I was in my early 30s. And Maggie lives in Somerset County, New Jersey -- where I used to live. So -- we do have a lot in common. But I haven't solved even one murder, so there are a lot of differences, too! Maybe she's who I'd have liked to have been.

CWL: Are other characters in your stories based on real people?

LW: No; none of the other characters are based on specific people! In fact, I go out of my way to avoid doing that, although if you've ever been at an antique show or known many dealers, you've probably met some of the characters in my book! I do have a granddaughter who has Down Syndrome, and a recurring character in my book also has Downs. Maggie's best friend has post-polio syndrome, and I've known several people who've had that. So there are pieces of people I know in the books. But no one is there unchanged.

CWL: What is it like selling prints at antique shows?

LW: Despite the work it takes to set up antique shows, I do love doing them! I love talking with other dealers, and I love having the opportunity to educate customers, especially younger people, about antique prints. But there are some people .. one man at a major show last year spent perhaps half an hour looking through my Winslow Homer engravings. Finally he turned to me. "This guy could really draw," he said. "Did he do anything about World War II?" Some questions are best answered with a simple, "No."

CWL; What are your favorite print(s).

LW: I have a soft spot for Winslow Homer wood engravings; the ones printed in Harper's Weekly and Every Saturday and other newspapers from 1858-1874. I try to keep as many of them as I can in my inventory, although they're becoming harder to find. I have about 160 of them now. Although they've gone up in value in the past twenty years they are still affordable, and I think, as the early work of one of America's greatest artists, they will continue to be an excellent investment.

CWL Do you plan to continue with the Maggie Summer books?

LW: There are four books in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series and after the 4th book my editor retired, and Scribner discontinued most of the mystery series' she had contracted for, including mine. My agent has tried to find another publisher to pick up the series, but so far he hasn't been successful. So -- I've written another Maggie book, but I don't know if it will ever be published. I hope so! In the meantime, I'm continuing to sell antique prints.

I hope Lea finds a publisher and encourage fans of antique prints and mysteries to find one of the Shadows books and give it a read. You’ll enjoy it!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Framing art on paper

This is the second part of our blog of the care of art on paper (click here for first part). Here I will give our recommendations for the proper framing of prints. The manner in which a print is housed in a frame is the most important factor in the preservation of that print. There is no question that proper framing (often called "museum quality" or "conservation framing") is more expensive than not bothering with the recommendations below, but by properly framing a print, you will preserve it over time, whereas not to do so will likely lead to its ultimate destruction.

The following are the important factors involved in archival framing.

  • Matting material should be 100% cotton rag.
    Of the many types of mat board available, one should use only 100% cotton rag mat board when framing a print. Cotton fiber is 99% acid-free; it is then buffered to pH 8.2 with an alkaline reserve of 2-3% to counteract environmental acids and air pollution which may come in contact with the art. The most deceptively named boards are some "acid-free" mat boards made from wood pulp. While the acid content of these boards has been reduced from that found in the raw pulp, it has not been eliminated. The buffering agents used on the surfaces are only effective against airborne compounds, and do not protect against heat and light activation of acidic elements remaining in the board. For the short term they can be alright, but there is a considerable risk over time.

  • If there is no mat between the glass and the art work, a spacer should be used.
    A spacer is used to keep the paper surface away from the glazing. This procedure is important because high or changing humidity can cause condensation to form on the interior of the glazing surface, and without the air space between the art and the glazing material, this condensation will be in contact with the art work. This may lead to mold, mildew and water spots on the art work or may cause the art work to stick to the glazing.

  • Hinges should be made of Japanese paper, with natural wheat or rice paste used as an adhesive.
    Hinges are the invisible attachments between your art work and the backing board. It is important that these not have any acidic content and that the hinges be easily removable without damage to the art work.

  • We recommend the use of conservation quality glass or acrylic.
    Manufactured to filter out 97 to 99% of ultraviolet rays, conservation quality glazing will protect your art work from fading due to sunlight and bright fluorescent or incandescent light. The advantages of acrylic are that the material is lighter and safer, especially when art work is to be shipped. Conservation glass has the advantage of being less likely to bow in a large frame and being less susceptible to scratches.

  • All frames should have a paper dustcover stretched across the back.
    This prevents dust particles and tiny insects from gaining access to your art work. At the same time, the porous quality of the paper will allow the art work to breathe within the frame.

  • Try to maintain a stable environment for your art work.
    Consistent 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity are optimal. Some slow variation in these factors is acceptable over a period of months or years, but any sudden change can be harmful. It is advisable not to hang or store art work on a damp wall, a wall that has been recently plastered, over a working fireplace, or in any area subject to excessive sunlight, heat or dampness.

  • When cleaning the glazing, great care should be taken.
    Be sure to take the frame off the wall. In order to prevent the moisture of the cleaner from seeping into the frame and onto your art work, it is best to clean the glazing in a horizontal position. Use a non-abrasive cleaning product, spraying onto a soft, lint-free cloth, rather than directly onto glazing. Never use glass cleaner on acrylic. While the frame is off the wall, check the dustcover on the back of the frame. If it is missing or has been ruptured in some way, the frame should be taken to a frame shop to determine whether any damage has occurred and to replace the cover.

  • It is advisable to have your art work in frames evaluated every five to seven years.
    Over time, acids and dirt in the environment can have a harmful effect upon your art work.
  • Monday, April 13, 2009

    Prints with "decorative value"

    Throughout history, the production of prints was intended as a relatively inexpensive way of creating images that could be distributed in multiple examples. That was the whole point of most antique prints—that information could be transmitted or a decorative image could be produced that would reach many people at an affordable price. This is in contrast to hand-lettered documents or drawings, watercolors and paintings, where wide distribution was usually not the goal.

    There are, of course, some prints that were made in relatively small numbers, designed to be more expensive objects intended for a wealthy buyer. John James Audubon’s double elephant folio bird prints, Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora, Karl Bodmer’s images of American Indians are examples of series of prints issued in small numbers, produced by means of elaborate printmaking processes, and intended for an upper-class audience. Similarly, fine art prints were often designed to be valuable and collectable, and the whole notion of numbering a print was introduced in the late nineteenth century in order to demonstrate that a print was not issued in large numbers, and so to preserve its value through scarcity.

    Many of the most famous antique prints are “up market” like this (which makes sense, since valuable prints tend to get more notice than inexpensive ones), but in terms of number produced, there are far more prints that were aimed at the lower or middle classes, prints designed to be affordable and distributed widely. Many antique prints were produced for ornamentation, designed to be displayed as decoration in a gathering place, a home or a work place. These prints were often well made and quite beautiful, but they were not originally intended to be particularly valuable nor collectible.

    Of course some of these prints have subsequently become quite valuable and collectible (Currier & Ives prints are a good example), but the majority of antique prints have remained to this day what they originally were intended to be, viz. affordable, decorative art. The mere fact that a print is old, or that it may be quite scarce (see earlier blog on this subject), does not mean that the print will be particularly valuable.

    We get queries almost every day asking about the value of this or that antique print, through email, in our shop, on the phone, and when we are doing appraisals for the Antiques Roadshow. Probably 90% of the prints we are asked about have only what we call “decorative value.” By this we mean that the value of the print is whatever someone would pay to hang something that looks like that on his or her wall.

    “Decorative value” has, of course, a very wide range, from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. The decorative value of a print depends on the subject matter, what the item looks like in terms of decorative appeal and color, as well as its physical nature, such as its the size, condition, and whether it is framed or not. The decorative value of a particular print can also vary by region and by the venue in which it is being sold. “Decorative value” is thus a rather vague notion, but it does encompass the value of the vast majority of antique prints that one is apt to come across.

    When we tell people that their prints have “only” decorative value (which is by far our most common reply to the queries we receive), the reaction of the owner is usually disappointment. News stories about very valuable antiques and the high appraised values for many antiques on the Antiques Roadshow have raised the public’s expectations, or at least hopes, for the value of object they own, so some disappointment is inevitable. However, there is nothing wrong at all with owning a print with only decorative value. Prints are wonderful for what they are, not just for how much they are worth.

    When we tell someone that their print has decorative value, we also try to tell them why their print is still special. As discussed above, most antique prints were not intended to be valuable items, but to be decorative items, and most antique prints do that job extremely well. The range of quality and subjects is huge, but each antique print still has its own, unique decorative charm. If it is appreciated for that, then it should be treasured item. Also, antique prints are more than simply pretty pictures, for they are historic artifacts that are part of our past and that gives them extra intrinsic (as opposed to monetary) value.

    So I hope that everyone who finds out that their antique prints have “only” decorative value, will learn to treasure them for what they are, decorative images from our past.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009

    Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Division

    This is the first of a series of blogs in which I will look at the major American historical print repositories. In any consideration of such institutions, the Prints & Photographs Division (P&PD) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is one which holds a pride of place in terms of both size and quality. The P&PD has about 14 million images, including photographs, fine art and popular prints, posters, as well as art, architectural and engineering drawings. The collection is vast and also international in scope, but it is primarily focused on American subjects. The largest component of the PP&D collection is by far made up of photographs, but the P&PD also has American prints from every period and of every sort, including many prints that are unique examples.

    This collection was primarily built by a simple but effective process, for from 1846 to 1859, and then again from 1865 until the present, the LOC has been a national copyright deposit center. During this period, any print copyrighted in this country was supposed to have an example sent in to a copyright deposit center. Prior to 1870, the LOC was one of several copyright deposit centers so many, but not all, prints in this period were sent to the LOC. But then with the copyright law of 1870, the LOC became the only official national copyright deposit center. This law radically changed the nature of the LOC, making it the nation’s greatest repository of the output of American authors, artists, and publishers of all sorts. With that law, the LOC soon became the most comprehensive collection of American prints. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the items in the LOC graphic arts collection were acquired through copyright deposits.

    Besides its copyright deposit acquisitions, the P&PD has many other strong collections, for instance it has one of the best collections of British political cartoons, second only to that found in the British Museum. This is because in 1921, the LOC purchased the superb collection of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, a collection built by George III and George IV. As a complement to the British historical prints, the LOC has probably the finest collection of contemporary prints of the American Revolution, a collection that is comprehensively documented in my partner, Donald H. Cresswell’s book The American Revolution in Drawings and Prints .

    The best way to access the collections at the LOC is to go in person, though help is available for those who cannot visit, as explained on the P&PD web site Luckily, the LOC has entered the internet age with enthusiasm and the P&PD has an online catalogue which provides access to about one half of the division’s holdings. Though there are many items not available on-line, this still provides internet access to an impressive number of prints. The on-line entries for the prints contain much useful information, and many of the prints are also illustrated. This P&PD catalogue is definitely one of the best internet resources for antique prints.

    Besides the P&PD catalogue, the LOC has developed the “American Memory” web site. I cannot do better than to quote from the LOC as to the mission of this site:
    American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

    As stated, the American Memory website exhibits many items besides prints, including a fair bit of photographic and cartographic material, but prints are well represented. Almost every theme on the site contains some exhibits with some prints, but of particular note are the exhibits on Panoramic Maps (bird’s eye views), African-American sheet music, and Broadsides and other printed ephemera.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    Black & White

    Another blog by Kelli, this one looking at the attraction of uncolored prints...

    When it comes right down to it, there’s nothing more classic than an image in black and white. There’s a good reason that women return to the “little black dress” every season, and that black-and-white photography survives as a fine art form. Color is great, but it’s hard to beat the elegant simplicity that you get without it.

    When decorating with prints, many people move automatically toward brightly-hued botanical prints or vibrant genre lithographs. Black-and-white prints often escape notice, so today, we’re pulling them to the front of the line.

    For anyone interested in design, the black-and-white image offers a chance to appreciate the subject matter in a pure and distilled form. Architectural engravings, for example, showcase the essence of buildings: their elevations appear crisply laid out on clean paper, and details sing. On Domenico de Rossi’s eighteenth century engravings of buildings in Rome, for example, Baroque structures stand boldly and timelessly against a plain background. For lovers of good typography, Rossi’s prints are a bonanza: bold black Roman letters mix with beautifully flourished italics to form clear, lovely titles.

    Black and white was also a prime combination for clear communication of information. In Asa Smith’s astronomy textbook pages, maps of the heavens are presented as white stars on a black background. Stars pop and constellations sing on a solid black sky, labeled in white block capitals. Hung in a group of four, the details on these prints form a bold, nearly abstract pattern against the wall.

    In one set of prints that we have here at the shop, the graphics and typography are clear as day, even if the subject matter is a little foggy. We’re not sure exactly how these prints may have been used , but we’ve wondered if, perhaps, they were some sort of presentation graphic, a sort of proto-PowerPoint. They illustrate changing statistics, mostly domestically based, such as the increased use of electrical household appliances. Their charm comes from the unusual use of pictures at different scales to communicate different numerical figures. The small number from one year is represented by a small, aproned housewife holding an electric iron; the increased number from a later year appears as a larger version of the same aproned housewife (at any size, the pattern on her apron is marvelous!). Each figure and number stand out boldly in black ink against a plain white background, accentuating their quirk and whimsy.

    Whether you’re aiming for a touch of elegance, a pop of pattern, or a note of whimsy, black-and-white prints offer a surprising range of decorating accents.

    Wednesday, April 8, 2009

    Mississippi Bubble cartouche

    Sometime around the middle of the eighteenth century, Georg Matthew Seutter published a map of North America that is at least as fascinating for its elaborate title cartouche as for it cartographic depiction of the continent. Seutter based his rendering on an important French map by Guillaume Delisle first issued in 1718, the best map of North America in the early eighteenth century. Delisle, and Seutter after him, gave a fairly accurate picture of interior of the continent, demonstrating the vastness of the region and the immense river system draining into the Mississippi River.

    Seutter presents the geographic information with careful engraving, enhanced with bold period color, but it is the wonderful drawings around the title in the lower right corner that draws one’s attention. This title cartouche is not only aesthetically delightful, but an understanding of its symbolism makes it as fascinating to the mind as it is appealing to the eye. This cartouche tells the story of the Mississippi Bubble.

    The story of the Mississippi Bubble began with the financial crisis in France at the time of Louis XIV’s death in 1715. The Duke of Orleans, regent for five year old Louis XV, turned to his friend, the Scotsman John Law. Law had been forced to leave the British Isles after he killed a man in a duel, and he made a name for himself in Europe as a financial expert and successful gambler, attracting the Duke’s attention when he arrived in Paris the year of the old King’s death. The following year, Law established the Banque Generale, which helped to stabilize the situation in France, further enhancing Law’s reputation.

    In 1718, Law established a speculative company called the Companie des Indes (or more commonly, the Mississippi Company), which was given a monopoly on trading rights with the French colonies, including the territory of Louisiana in North America (essentially, the Mississippi River drainage basin). Discoveries of lead ore—which was thought to indicate the nearby presence of gold—along the upper Mississippi, along with Law’s reputation, made stock in the Mississippi Company soar, rising from about 500 livres in May 1719 to almost 10,000 livres in early 1720. The speculative fever for this stock soon ran into the reality of the difficulty of extracting the supposed riches from the vast interior of North America—which was graphically represented on Seutter’s map—so in May 1720 the Mississippi Bubble burst.. The value of the stock plummeted, becoming essentially worthless by November, and Law was forced to flee the country.

    Law’s scheme and its consequences are graphically illustrated in the fine title cartouche. At the top, Fame is shown blowing a trumpet calling forth those who seek gold. Just below is a statue of Plenty shown pouring jewels and coins in a stream from a cornucopia. This is a symbol for the riches that were expected to flow down the Mississippi River in a flood. A banner above states that “Fortune favors the bold.”

    Luckily for the bold followers of gold, there was opportunity to acquire stock in the Mississippi Company. At the base of the pedestal upon which Plenty stands are two Italianate putti producing certificates using a wax seal printer. The stock is then being handed out by other putti and the goddess Commerce to delighted speculators. All seems wonderful until one notices that two of the cherubs along the bottom are blowing bubbles!

    The purse, however, proved to be empty and the bubble did burst! Though the positive proclamations and promised riches of the cartouche initially draw the eye, when one looks closely, the consequences of the empty purse are present in all their surprise and horror.

    [NB: If you click on the pictures above, you can see larger versions of these images.]

    Forthcoming Print Events

  • Through April 26, 2009: Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Durer and Titian.

    An impressive exhibit of impressive prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go to Philadelphia Museum of Art web site for more information.

  • Through May 3, 2009: Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age

    An exhibit of paintings, maps, atlases and books illustrating Dutch cities of the 17th century at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. The Netherlands was one of the richest nations anywhere at that time and the fine engravings illustrating the wealth of Dutch cities are remarkable. For more information visit the National Gallery web site.

  • May 14 to 16, 2009: AHPCS annual meeting

    The 34th annual meeting of the American Historical Print Collectors Society will take place this year in Portland, Oregon. A fine series of lectures is planned, as are visits to Lewis & Clark College, the Portland Art Museum, the Maryhill Museum of Art and the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. A print fair (and dinner) will be held on Thursday night and on Saturday night will be the annual banquet and benefit auction. This should be a great meeting. For more information, visit the AHPCS web site.

  • May 15 to 17, 2009: St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book and Paper Arts Fair

    This is the third annual fair which includes an impressive line-up of antiquarian print and book dealers (including the Print Shop). The event will be held in St. Louis, MO, at the J.C. Penney Conference Center, which is adjacent to the St. Louis Mercantile Library. This is the oldest library west of the Mississippi River and the fair is held to support the library. More information on the Mercantile Library web site

  • Through June 14, 2009: The Indian Portrait Gallery of Thomas L. McKenney

    Having done a lot of research on the topic, I was delighted to hear that the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NB, was putting up a display of the prints from the McKenney & Hall History of the Indian Tribes of North America (often called the McKenney & Hall Indian Portrait Gallery). You can read the Joslyn’s press release on-line.
  • Tuesday, April 7, 2009

    Woodcuts & Wood engravings

    Both woodcuts and wood engravings entail creating a relief image on a block of wood by cutting away the parts that are not to hold ink. The design is usually drawn directly onto the block and then all other parts are cut away. In a woodcut (illustrated below on left)the image is cut from the block parallel to the grain using a knife or a pointed tool called a graver. In a wood engraving (illustrated below on right) the image is cut using a graver on the end of the grain.

    Because these processes print in relief, they can be printed on the same press as typeface. Because of this, early on wood cuts were often used to illustrate books. In the nineteenth century, wood engravings were used to illustrate newspapers such as Harper's Weekly.

    Woodcuts were introduced to Europe in the early fifteenth century (the earliest European woodcut is the “Brussels Madonna” of 1418), but were executed in the Orient as early as the ninth century. The use of woodcuts was spread by the inventions of moveable type and of the printing press in the 1450s. Wood engraving was developed in England in the early eighteenth century, firmly established in Europe by Thomas Bewick at the end of that century, and popularized in America during the Civil War.

    Monday, April 6, 2009

    Prints On Screen: Little Dorrit

    A large percentage of antique prints were issued in order to be displayed in the home or work place. As paintings were expensive, only owned by the relatively wealthy, up through the nineteenth century prints have been one of the most common forms of wall decoration. Even to the present day, antique prints have remained a popular means of decorating the home, office, bar, restaurant or club. Thus one would expect to see a lot of prints on screen, either in movies or television programs, especially period pieces. However, it seems that most scene designers do not think of prints when put together their sets. Once in a while, though, one can spot some original antique prints on the screen. It strikes me that this is a topic worthy of an occasional blog...

    Last night I watched Little Dorrit, a wonderful British production of this Dickens work. The British tend to be more aware of antique prints than Americans, so it is not surprising that prints have appeared prominently in a few scenes in this BBC produced story set in mid-nineteenth century London. At that time, prints would have been a common form of wall decoration for the classes of people who appear in this program, and the producers have shown this nicely.

    A print that was unrecognizable appeared in the front window of a bookstore that appeared briefly, but then two engravings were shown prominently in the rooms of John Chivery, the turnkey's son, when he invites Amy in to warm her hands. I didn't recognize these prints, but maybe some else did? Then a group of colored aquatints were shown in the Meagles drawing room during a soiree scene. I did not recognize these scenes, but they appeared to be a from a plate volume from a "foreign" land. Did anyone recognize these?

    As I spot other prints on screen I'll post that information, but would love to hear from any other print spotters.


    Ephemera are items that were originally produced for an immediately purpose, with the expectation being that they would be discarded after use. This would include items like posters, tickets, invoices, broadsides, and so forth. Those that have a graphic aspect can be called "prints," so antique ephemera would fall within the scope of this blog. However, the way I am using "prints" implies that the graphic aspect is of principal significance for the object. So, a ticket, even one with a small vignette, would generally not be something that I would be concerned with, whereas an advertising poster which includes a substantial view of, e.g., an exhibition site, is something I would include in this blog. The distinction between ephemera that fits this blog and that which doesn't really fall within its scope is vague, however without question the subject of ephemera is relevant to this blog and so I have asked Marty Weil, from Asheville, NC, to write a guest blog on the topic....

    Marty Weil, Ephemera blog

    I'm interested in ephemera from the standpoint of its value to researchers, writers, artists, historians, genealogists, collectors, and others; therefore, the mission of my blog, ephemera, is designed to primarily showcase the world-class ephemera collections of others. Although I have a few pieces of ephemera, my personal collection is extremely limited. Rather, I'm interested in seeing what exists in the collection of others, and the contest was one means of tapping into the extraordinary wealth of ephemera that is held in public and private hands throughout the world.

    The ephemera I cover is solely based on what I personally like and think my readers would find interesting. The items didn't necessarily have to be G-rated; however, I seldom feature anything on the site that wouldn't be appropriate for a general audience. Nonetheless, the site is not intended for children, as the nature of ephemera often broaches decidedly adult topics.

    To me ephemera means items made of paper that were not necessarily intended to last beyond a short period. There are many definitions of ephemera. Of all the definitions of ephemera that I've seen, my favorite is "raw, unedited history."

    There are a variety of reasons why certain old paper has survived to the present day. In some cases, it's just a fluke or luck or happenstance. More often, people save old paper deliberately for a variety of reasons, such as sentimental value, nostalgia, reference, and/or for collecting purposes. As opposed to offering excuses, most people take pride in the items they've saved or collected, especially those people that consider themselves to be true ephemera collectors.

    While I'm not planning to write a Covey-esque book, after interviewing so many established and successful collectors on the subject of creating world-class ephemera collections, I've distilled the seven habits of highly successful ephemera collectors:
      1. Patience. Effective collectors know the value of patience, and may, if need be, wait months or even years before acquiring a particularly rare and important specimen for their collection.
      2. Persistence. Effective collectors have the fortitude to continually search and scour until they unearth (sometimes literally) an item to add to their collection.
      3. Scholarship. Effective collectors know that knowledge is power in the world of collecting. It provides an edge that separates the expert collector from the rest of the field. Effective collectors become, in effect, experts on the subject of their collectible.
      4. Understanding. Effective collectors understand that their collection may never be perfect or complete. The joy of collecting is in the gathering and studying of whatever it is they find fascinating and worthwhile.
      5. Preservation. Effective collectors know that it is not what they have, but how well they take care of it that matters. Effective collectors think like archivists, and care for their treasures like a Brinks guard protects the cash coming out of a Vegas counting cage.
      6. Internet Search Savvy. Effective collectors know the value of the Internet, and they have learned how to bend search engines to their will. Like Major Nelson summoning Barbara Eden from the bottle, they know how to use search engines to bring forth items they seeks.
      7. Fraternity. Effective collectors reach out to others in the collecting community, and share their wisdom and knowledge freely. They understand that sharing their expertise is its own reward, and that by contributing to the knowledge base, they expand the availability of collectibles and increase the value of their collection.

    This is what I've learned at the feet of the masters.

    If ephemera is your passion, visit the ephemera blog and explore the world of old paper.