Here is a typical question I received this morning:
I came across a framed print which was turned upside down in a closet and used for a shelf. Since then, I have been trying to find out more information, or where I could find more information about the print.
There is a sticker on the back from Goupil's Gallery, 5th Avenue and Twenty Second Street, NY. The frame is painted wood throughout the front with a scalloped cutout in the center for the picture of a young girl. The edging of the scallop is painted gold.
I have tried to research the print, frame, Goupil's, etc., and always meet with a dead end. I even brought it to a local "Antiques Road Show" here in Columbia and the art dealer could not provide me with any information. I am looking for some direction as to my next step. Can you possibly provide that for me.
In a couple of ways this question is typical of the type of queries we get all the time (though unusual in that the framed print had been used as a closet shelf!). First, the only information on the item is the name of the gallery that framed or sold the print. Secondly, the owner has tried to research the print (usually on the internet) and found absolutely nothing.
The sad thing is that in most of these cases--including this one--there is nothing we can tell the owner. First off, the name of the framer or seller (in this case Goupil of New York) does not tell you much about the print. Most framers and art galleries handled all sorts of prints and the fact they framed or sold the one in question usually adds nothing to your knowledge about the print itself.
The real problem, though, is that it is just a fact of the print world that there isn't any information that is possible to find about an awful lot of antique prints. Sure, there are many prints where the publisher, artist, engraver, date, etc. is printed on the prints themselves, but at least as many prints have little or no information on them. Some may have a title, or perhaps a place of publication, but many have nothing at all.
For these prints, it is usually impossible to learn anything more than what you can see by looking at them. If I examine a print in person, I can usually tell the process by which it is made and often a general date (from the process, style and paper). Beyond that, though, there is often nothing more to be learned. From the middle of the nineteenth century through to the early twentieth century there were tens of thousands of prints made about which there is no information one can find today.
These prints were usually inexpensive prints produced for decoration, where the artist was unrecorded (or, even if identified, there may be nothing more known about the artist ) and where the publisher didn't bother to record its name nor the date of publication. These prints were simply intended to be framed and hung on the wall and the publishers didn't think it was worthwhile to document any of this information.
As discussed in the blog about decorative prints, there is nothing wrong with these "mere" decorative prints, but the nature of these prints means that there is likely never anything--other than process and a general date--to be learned about them. It is frustrating for us when people email us or bring this sort of print into the Antiques Roadshow, but it happens all the time. Our best advice is for the owners not to worry about this lack of documentation, but rather to simply enjoy these prints for what they were intended, as decorative prints to be framed, hung and enjoyed.