The Arlecchino Antique-ShopCollecting Antique Prints and Antique Maps
Antique Column




Open Up the Worlds of the Past

From the Middle Ages forward, it is possible to find prints illustrating practically every area of the globe and every human activity.  Prints were both artistic expression and a means of recording daily life, much as photography is today.  They are beautiful to look at and intellectually stimulating.  Prints are collected for their intrinsic fascination or may be used in decorating to impart a distinctive personalized character.


What is a Print?

"Print" is a generic term used to describe multiples of the same image produced from a common source or 'matrix' (typically wood, metal or stone).  Thus a photograph, a printed road map, and an engraving hand-produced by the artist are all examples of prints. Antique prints and maps were produced by techniques where the matrix was worked by hand (as opposed to photo-mechanical methods which became common from the late 19th century), and this is immediately apparent in the quality of the image.

In looking at antique prints and maps you need to be able to identify the different methods employed to make a print, and to distinguish between a genuinely old print and a modern reproduction of an old print.


How Were Antique Prints Produced?

The methods of producing antique prints fall into three general categories:

The areas to be inked and printed are left standing in relief after the rest of the block (typically wood or linoleum) has been cut away. Examples: woodcuts and wood engravings.

The areas to be printed are cut or incised into a metal plate by a variety of techniques. Ink is applied to the incisions into the plate and the surface is wiped clean.  The print is produced by applying damp paper to the surface and running it through a press, forcing the ink from the incisions.  Examples: engraving, etching, aquatint, mezzotint, drypoint.  Typically, a plate mark (an indentation in the paper due to the pressure needed to pull the ink out of the incisions) identifies the intaglio process.

With lithography, the main example of this process, the image is drawn on finely grained limestone or on a metal plate with a greasy pencil, crayon or ink.  The stone is treated with a chemical solution, dampened, and then inked.  The ink is attracted to the greasy crayon marks but repelled by the dampened areas.  When paper is placed on the stone and both run through a press, the image is transferred, from a flat surface.


What is an "Original" Print?

Printmaking processes that are today associated with "fine art" were once used to provide illustrations for books, newspapers and magazines as well as for individually published prints.  When these "commercial art" processes were replaced by photographic reproduction, lithography, wood engraving etc. became the exclusive techniques of "fine art".  The distinction was solidified by the introduction of such concepts as the signed "limited edition" print (where the artist signs and numbers each print) and the emphasis on an "original" print (where the artist produces the "block", the source of all subsequent images). Prior to the late nineteenth century, there was not this importance attached to the artist producing the printing block; rather, artisans skilled in this process were routinely employed.


How do you Distinguish a Genuine Old Print from a Modern Reproduction?

The more you look at old prints the easier this becomes.  Most reproductions of old prints produced by modern means have a flat appearance which contrasts with the crispness and depth of tone of the old print.  It is this quality of printing which will make you gravitate to the genuine old print.

1.  Look at the print through a magnifying glass.  The majority of reproductions of old prints are produced by photomechanical means and can easily be distinguished by the pattern of lines and dots visible through the magnifying glass.  A regular grid pattern of dots indicates a photo-offset reproduction.  Of course, prints produced since the late 19th century may have originally been printed by this technique. A more recent development in color reproduction is xeroxing.  When seen in magnification, a color xerox print is identified by  parallel lines of color.
Examine old prints and become familiar with the look of different techniques. Lithographs have an irregular granular pattern (contrast the granular look of a genuine old Currier and Ives print with the dot grid pattern of a twentieth century Currier and Ives calendar print).  Engravings and wood engravings are both linear in pattern -- reproductions of these processes lack the crispness of the original. (The book by Bamber Gascoigne listed below has excellent illustrations showing the distinguishing characteristics of different print techniques).

2.  Examine the paper.  The paper used at different times and places has a distinctive look and feel.  Watermarks in the paper help to identify the age of the print.  This type of knowledge is gained by experience examining old prints, and is one reason why buying a costly framed print (where the paper cannot be examined) from other than a reputable dealer can be a risky business.


What Makes a Print Valuable?

An old print produced by one of the methods described above has an intrinsic value which a modern photo-offset reproduction does not.
Factors which influence value are subject matter, artist or printmaker, quality of technique, scarcity and, of course, condition. Problems of condition include tears, foxing (small brown spots), mildew, waterstains and holes.  A paper conservator should be consulted to determine what can be done to restore a damaged print.

While the purist will always value the print in its original state, modern handcoloring, if skillfully applied, may enhance the value of a commonly available black and white image.


How do I Care for My Antique prints?

The paper on which prints were produced varies greatly in quality and durability, but if kept under proper conditions (no extremes of temperature or humidity and out of direct sunlight), pre-twentieth century paper is amazingly durable.  The following are a few suggestions for print care, but please consult a paper conservator or qualified framer for more detailed information.

- A print should be handled using both hands, to give adequate support and to prevent tearing.
- Although all old prints were not produced on acid-free paper, keeping them in an acid-free environment will aid their longevity.  Offending "acid" materials include  framing materials of an earlier era.  Often rematting,   if not reframing, will help preserve a precious print.
- Do not use staples, paperclips or adhesive or "scotch"  tape on old prints. 
- Prints should never be exposed to direct sunlight; the use of an ultra-violet filtering glass or plexiglass is highly recommended to minimize fading.



Abbreviations  found on old prints: 
del. delineavit (Latin, drew it), denotes the artist's name 
lith. denotes the lithographer's name 
pinx.: pinxit (Latin, painted it), denotes the artist's name 
sc., sculp. sculpsit, (Latin, engraved by), denotes the engraver's name; 
interchangeable with eng. (English, engraved) 
Generally, the artist's name is noted at the bottom left of a print, the maker of the printblock at the right.

chromolithograph - a lithograph printed in color, using different stones or plates for each color

foxing - brownish spots on the paper, with a number of causes, including dampness, fungus, and paper impurities

restrike - a print "struck" (ie printed)  from the original block (usually a metal plate) but at a later time than the original edition. Restrikes are particularly common with such images as British hunting scenes, which have routinely been reprinted over the years since they were first published.


Suggested Reading

Gascoigne, B. - How to Identify Prints
A complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to ink jet.
Thames & Hudson 1986.

Griffiths, Antony - Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques.  1980.

Hults, Linda - The Print in the Western World.
University of Wisconsin.

Wilder, F. L. - How to Identify Old Prints.
Bell 1969.

Ivins, W.M. - How Prints Look.
Beacon Press 1964.

Hughes, Therle - Prints for the Collector.
Praeger 1971.

Rix, M. - The Art of Botanical Illustration.
Arch Cape Press 1990.

Dance, S.P. - The Art of Natural History.
Arch Cape Press 1990.

van de Gohm, R. - Antique Maps for the Collector.
Macmillan 1972.

Moreland, C. &  D. Bannister - Antique Maps.
Phaidon 1986.

Schwartz, S. &  R. Ehrenberg - The Mapping of America.
Abrams 1980.


This article is used here by kind permission of the author Elisabeth Burdon,
Copyright 1992 Elisabeth Burdon


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AntiquePrints1.jpg (16120 byte)
Mark Catesby, White Heron.
From Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.
London, 1771



AntiquePrints2.jpg (9807 byte)
Frederick de Wit. “Nova Orbis Tabula.”
Amsterdam, 1688



AntiquePrints3.jpg (11163 byte)
Henderson. “The Queen.”
From Dr. John Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora.
London, 1804



AntiquePrints4.jpg (10522 byte)
J.O. Westwood, F.L.S.
From Illustrations of Exotic Entomology
London, 1837



AntiquePrints5.jpg (10211 byte)
The Abbe Liszt, Spy



AntiquePrints6.jpg (9181 byte)
“Vue de l’Eglise capitale, du Vatican et du Chateau des Anges a Rome”



AntiquePrints7.jpg (7037 byte)
J. Cameron, "Goldsmith Maid"
Rochester, 1874

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