"Old Paper"

(Unsodo and Shobisha Publishers)

Prints--Factors Affecting Desirability

Experienced and knowledgeable collectors of Japanese woodblock prints typically understand and appreciate the significance of making a distinction between newer "late edition" prints versus earlier and more rare "early editions." There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is simple economics, which places a higher value on that which is older and more rare; and certainly many of these existing "earlier prints" are getting "rarer" by the day as sadly more and more are destroyed each year by housefires, poor/improper display, and other unfortunate circumstances.

Another factor supporting the collecting popularity and desirability of "older prints" stems from the fact that they were printed during an era when higher printing standards were expected and printing skills were simply elevated to a "higher level." Early last century, during the woodblock print rebirth that we now call the "shin-hanga" era, it was typically the norm that new aspiring printers would serve lengthy and arduous apprenticeships under the close supervision of a master printer who was their "sensei." Documented, for example, is the case of Doi's printer "second primary printer," Seki, who served a full 10-year apprenticeship under the watchful and demanding eye of Yokoi before his own "personal seal" ("Seki") would ever appear on a print. Another example is some of the earlier (lifetime) prints done by Hiroshi Yoshida--where it is said that he would personally destroy any copies of prints from a lengthy and demanding multi-day production run that simply did not measure up to his personal visual standards (Pachter "Kawase Hasui and his Contemporaries: The Shin Hanga (New Print) Movement," 1986). As a result, the printing skill exhibited in these earlier prints is often visually and aesthetically superior; their "bokashi" (gradation of colors) shading, for example, was simply more skillfully executed. Even to the less experienced collector's eye, during the close examination of an "earlier" print such details will become evident.

A third factor and significant factor is that simply of "blockwear." After perhaps several "production runs" done occasionally over the years as demand called for the inventory replacement of popular, "sold out" prints, inevitably these fragile woodblocks would themselves begin to show "signs of wear." This is especially noticeable and most visually evident in the case of a woodblock print's "key-block"--that is, the first block used in the entire printing process which contains all the various very THINLY carved black outlines seen in a print. Because of their "raised narrowness" in combination with the forcefully direct rubbing done by the "baren" pad during the printing process, over time many of these thin raised wooden edges (often 1mm or LESS in width) would simply break or chip away. The telling result then is obviously that "later editions" will therefore show scattered areas of "broken black lines" within their printed image. Also evident signs of wear can even occasionally be seen as "cracks" in the block, or even more commonly, a complete LACK of the distinct "woodgrain pattern" clearly seen printed into the "wider colored areas" of "earlier" prints (compare the 2 "states" of Koitsu's 1936 print "Spring Snow at Maruyama, Kyoto" just below).

"detail area" of Koitsu's 1936 print, "Spring Snow at Maruyama, Kyoto"

Left: Ukiyoe Gallery's Item #JS-1253 (pre-war)     versus     Right: Recent eBay Auction (post-war?)

(note distinctly visible "woodgrain" pattern)                       (note total absence of any "woodgrain" pattern)

A Unique Case in Point: Unsodo Publisher

Another sometimes subjective factor influencing (and enhancing) a print's desirability again relates to the simple economic concept mentioned above that, as with nearly all antiques, quite simply "older is better" and is nearly always more highly valued. Obviously, in the majority of cases, a print's age can be proven directly (objectively) by a knowledgeable examination of the "publisher's seals" and "printer's seals" found on the print. However, in the case of some publishers this becomes more difficult because in some cases these publishers have subsequently CARVED AWAY some of the earlier seals that were originally carved INTO the face of the prints' original "key-blocks."

An excellent case in point are the prints of Unsodo Publisher, who produced many fine images by the popular artists Shiro Kasamatsu and Takeji Asano, but whose post-1960 prints can be especially difficult to "date" for not only the novice collector, but also for most experts alike. This difficulty stems from a late-1950's "termination of cooperation" between Unsodo and both artists Kasamatsu and Asano. Today we can only speculate as to why both Kasamatsu and Asano abruptly ended their association with Unsodo, but is documented that both artists left the employment of Unsodo no later than 1960. The result was that Unsodo retained ownership of these artist's woodblocks (typically Japanese publishers "owned" the blocks once the artist's were paid) and that certainly no later than about late 1960 (when Kasamatsu ended his association with Unsodo) is when the "block-carved dates" and oftentimes the artist's "English names" were permanently removed from these prints' various black "key blocks." At the same time, the remaining publisher, carver and printer "koma" seals were often additionally "re-positioned" slightly within the print's margins (allowable since these "koma" are removable).

Resulting from this dispute then, Unsodo Publisher's prints by the artists Kasamatsu and Asano today exist in two easily discernible "states." True "first editions" are evidenced and clearly indicated by the presence of their "margin-dating" which is seen typically in their lower left margins. These (dated) "first edition" prints are contrasted with all other "strikes" which subsequently LACK any visible "margin-dating." (Compare the 2 "states" of Kasamatsu's 1957 print, "Sea at Echigo," nicknamed "Snowy Roofs," shown just below.)

Shiro Kasamatsu's 1957 print, "Sea at Echigo"

Left: "margin-dated" (PRE-1960) "first edition"      versus      Right: "undated" post-1960 later edition"

(As can also be seen, the "publisher's seals" and "carver/printer seals" (known as "koma") have been slightly "re-positioned" within the margins of the "key-block"--easily achievable since they are individually carved and then INSERTED into small holes in its margin, rather than being permanently carved into the margin as are the print's Japanese "title" and "date.")

Unsodo Publisher--Further Distinctions Based on the Age of Papers and Interviews

But the important question then remained: "Are all "post-1960" Unsodo prints then simply to be considered the same??" The answer to this question, we believe, is clearly and emphatically "NO." We further believe and will demonstrate with a high degree of confidence that much can be accurately stated regarding these other very "early edition" strikes.

Specifically in the case of many of these post-1960 Unsodo Publisher prints, our experience strongly indicates that by three proven measures one can confidently state their printing dates to within a very few years. These measures include an experienced and knowledgeable examination of the actual papers used, conversations conducted directly with publisher with respects to their specific remaining inventory, and by actual interviews conducted with the actual printers themselves if still alive. Together, these three indicators all become valuable empirical evidence in helping to quite accurately "date" a given print or set of prints purchased.

Here then is where experience and diligence counts. In mid-summer of 2000, Dr. Grund personally located and interviewed Unsodo Publisher's then long-retired "primary printer," Saburo SHINMI (aged then in his nineties), with the helpful assistance of his daughter. When asked specifically about a striking red temple scene by Asano titled "Snow in Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto," Shinmi clearly stated that he LAST PRINTED this print "around Showa 30," which was around 1955 (we now know more accurately know that this must more precisely be closer to 1960). An immediate follow-up visit to Unsodo Publisher then determined a "final remaining inventory" of only 20 copies of this "Kamigamo" print, of which all copies were then immediately purchased. Thusly, THESE 20 specific existing/remaining strikes were confirmed to be from the publisher's original remaining "very early edition" prints and can be accurately and honestly dated as "late 1950's/very early 60's." Subsequent similar determinations were then made with respect to several OTHER "remaining very old inventory" Unsodo prints by both artists Kasamatsu and Asano.

Experience Counts

In a similar manner then, once an individual has repeatedly handled and sold dozens and dozens of such proven "late 1950's/very early 60's strikes" (and better yet, has "proven" examples on-hand for conducting direct comparisons), the experience gained from these repeated knowledgeable comparisons of "paper types" (thickness, degree of "toning," etc) then ALLOWS for a further fairly accurate "experienced estimate" as to other print's "true age." We therefore conclude that a fairly accurate and consistent statement can be made with respect to the age of ANY of these Unsodo Publisher prints based largely on the empirically observable differences in a print's paper. While not precise, an experienced professional should be able to "place" a given print within about a decade or so of it's actual production date--in other words, as a 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, or 1990's era "strike." The two digital images below taken of various Unsodo Publisher's prints will more clearly demonstrate these rather overt and consistently observable differences in "paper types."

A Comparison of Various Unsodo Publisher Prints Showing Obvious "Toning" of Older Prints

Three PROVEN very early 1960's prints (including "Kamigamo") are seen to the left--newer prints to the right.

Another Comparison (via back-lighting) of Various Unsodo Publisher Prints Showing Obvious "Thickness" Differences

Three PROVEN very early 1960's prints (including "Kamigamo") are seen to the left--newer prints to the right.

To the collector, the significance of thusly being able to reasonably accurately "date" the vintage of a particular "strike" again lies in the unavoidable and simple truth that "older is better." Even more so now, as we collectors enter the beginning of a new century, this unquestionable truth becomes even more evident. Certainly with respect to these prints published by Unsodo Publisher, given the choice would a knowledgeable collector not prefer to choose a print that is ALREADY 35 to 40 years old.....rather than choosing a "similar" strike that was only printed during the past decade (or less)? Clearly, the selection of a print that's "rapidly approaching becoming nearly half a century old" is a vastly superior choice compared to a "newer strike" to the knowledgeable collector interested in value.

A Further Case--Later Prints by Shobisha Publisher (formerly Kawaguchi & Sakai)

A similar situation exists today with a series of 16 popular "shin hanga" images designed by Hasui (KAWASE, Hasui 1883-1957) which were originally published in 1929-30 by Kawaguchi & Sakai Publisher and were then later printed again beginning in the mid-1950's by Shobisha Publisher who acquired the sets of woodblocks when Kawaguchi & Sakai ceased business and dissolved in 1931. Originally this set contained 16 fine images, of which 14 are still being produced today.

Of course, the very earliest "strikes" produced 80-some years ago by "K & S" are by far the most valuable (and are very rarely seen). These are evidenced by "rectangular-boxed" carver, printer and copyright seals in their lower left margin and the "K & S" publisher's name in the left end of the lower margin. The very earliest of these "states" further carry a "limited edition number" marked on their verso (very rare).

Kawaguchi & Sakai "publisher seals" (used 1929-31), lower left corner margin of prints

Next in "desirability" and collectabilty are the mid-1950's "strikes" (printed off of the same blocks) that were then produced by Shobisha Publisher during the period of 1955 to 1958. These earliest Shobisha "states" are easily identifiable by their unique round "tilted red seal" (7/16 inch, 11mm diameter) that appears in their lower front margin. Today, even these "states" are seldom seen on the market and must be seized at once if located.

Hasui's "Snow at Kiyomizu Temple" with Shobisha Publisher's Seal; detail of Shobisha's (1955-58) "tilted red seal"

Finally then, the early/mid-1980's saw a subsequent "third printing" again done by Shobisha Publisher. These prints were again masterfully produced and printed on beautiful, heavyweight, hand-made paper by a printer named Saito who has since passed away. In early 2000, Dr. Andreas Grund's research led him to eventually locate and then extensively interview the present-day owner of Shobisha Publishers, Mr. Nakajima. It was determined at that time that apparently no further printing had been accomplished since these prints which were struck in the early/mid-1980's. With the realization apparent that Shobisha's then-existing inventory was determined to be in a rapidly dwindling supply, a total procurement was made at that time of all remaining copies of Hasui's "Snow at Kiyomizu Temple."

Despite assurances made at that time (early 2000) that no further printings would likely occur for perhaps the next 5-7 years (if at all), we are today somewhat surprised to find that market demand for some of these very popular "exhausted" Hasui images has again encouraged and driven Shobisha Publisher to somehow locate a printer capable of once again printing a new supply for today's market. These very newest turn-of-the-century "strikes," printed mid-2001 (when they again began appearing on the market) are again very well printed and virtually identical in appearance; the only readily apparent difference being that they are now being printed on both visibly THINNER and "brighter" paper than their predecessors. Not only are the more desirable early/mid-1980's "strikes" printed on a heavier hand-made paper that appears to not be available today, but also, these earlier "strikes" have achieved a "mellowness" that likely just takes the better part of two decades to achieve.

Three mid-1980's Shobisha "strikes" of Hasui's "Kiyomizu" left versus 3 very recent mid-2001 "strikes" of same image.

(Note the aging and "mellowing" of the 15-year plus "strikes" on the left--new "strikes" (right) still "white.")

The SAME mid-1980's Shobisha "strikes" left versus 3 very recent mid-2001 "strikes" of same image.

(Note the clearly THICKER paper used 15-year plus years ago--the new "strikes" (right) are printed on thinner paper.)

To the collector, the significance of all this again lies in the unavoidable and simple truth that "older is better," and whenever possible, the oldest strikes obtainable should be added to one's collection. This truth seemingly comes into focus perhaps even more clearly now that we've "turned the corner" and have entered into a new century. Accordingly, with respect to these "later" Hasui prints published by Shobisha Publisher, given the choice of adding to one's collection a known 15-20 year old "strike" rather than choosing a "similar" strike that was only printed last year, the choice should again be an easy one to make for any knowledgeable collector interested in value.


Without a doubt, generally the SINGLE most important single factor influencing a print's value is it's age. In the majority of cases, a given print's age can be proven directly via a knowledgeable examination of the "publisher's seals" and "printer's seals" found on the print itself. Certainly, to easily accomplish this requires the ability to "read" some Japanese; however, even a non-Japanese speaking collector who is careful can typically accomplish this with confidence if he/she takes the time to make some careful direct comparisons of their print's "markings" with those found in reliable references. In other cases, where prints may be lacking certain positive earlier "markings" (as in the case of prints by Unsodo and Shobisha), more reliance must then be placed on the experience and trusted knowledge of a print's Seller.

(c) Thomas Crossland and Andreas Grund, 2002

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