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How Do We Describe Quality & Condition?

A few basic definitions

Blockwear montageThe following terms are used in condition descriptions on our website:

  • State: a design produced from a particular set of woodblocks. When blocks are altered, eliminated, or added, such changes constitute different states.
  • Edition: a design with particular printing characteristics within a state, that is, changes attributable to printing differences from the same blocks, not from changes in, additions to, or eliminations of any of the blocks.
  • Impression: a print from a state or edition distinguished by its overall line and color quality. An early ‘impression’ would have uniform, unbroken keyblock lines and well-printed/registered colors; a middle impression would show some wear to these lines or some defects in printed colors; and a late impression would suffer from worn, weakened lines and poorly printed colors.
  • Color: the perceived hue of a particular colorant. Assessments of fading are based on changes between the appearance of the colors and the assumed or known original hues.
  • Condition: all aspects of print preservation aside from color (i.e., whether there is soiling, toning, creasing, staining, worm/insect damage, poor mounting or framing damages, backing, and so on). Although the preservation of color could certainly be considered a part of overall "condition," it has become standard practice to separate assessments of color from other aspects of condition — presumably due to the importance of color in the aesthetic appreciation of most ukiyo-e prints. We have followed the same approach in our descriptions.
  • Backing: This term typically refers to old Japanese paper backings still present on the verso of prints once contained in nineteenth-century albums. If this is not the case, we have identified more recent backings.

Quality of impression

The quality of impression is an important consideration in describing a print. In general, unbroken keyblock lines are taken as evidence of an early impression — a universally desirable quality sought after by nearly all collectors. Lines that show wear (breaks, variable saturation not related to printing techniques, etc.) are usually considered signs of later editions. Much to the dismay of collectors who would prefer to believe that their ukiyo-e treasures were never available in large quantities, many ukiyo-e designs were printed in the hundreds — and in some case thousands — of impressions, regardless of their rarity today. Kamigata-e, however, were typically printed in small editions and survive in very limited numbers, especially when compared to their far more numerous cousins from Edo.

Standard versus deluxe states and editions

Another point related to quality of impression involves the so-called "deluxe" (some say "surimono-style") prints. Deluxe editions feature more elaborate printing techniques — one hallmark of these often being the use of metallic pigments. It is generally assumed that most deluxe editions were produced on special demand and constituted the first or early states of ukiyo-e designs.

The history of some designs is occasionally a bit complicated. Although a small deluxe edition might be followed by a standard edition, there were sometimes intermediate states or editions. For example, in kamigata-e a print might first be published in a deluxe edition without a publisher's mark, to be distributed privately among a small group of poetry or fan club members. Next, a deluxe edition with a publisher's mark could be issued for connoisseur collectors outside the inner circle. Third, a commercial, standard edition (with the same or another publisher's mark) might be issued. Finally, if the design was still selling well, further "late" standard editions were occasionally offered by the original publisher or perhaps a secondary publisher who would purchase the rights (called hankabu) or make some arrangement to use the blocks (kyûhan or guhan, "acquired blocks").

Readers will encounter quite a number of deluxe prints on this website, and they are among the best examples of Japanese printmaking.

Different strokes

Collectors ands curators react variously to condition issues. A slight horizontal centerfold might be disturbing to some but not to others. Well-preserved color is often an essential requirement for some collectors, whereas others look for certain compositional elements or artists while considering color preservation only a secondary factor.

Print dealers provide variable amounts of detail in their condition reports, and simple descriptions such as "slight soil" or "worm hole" are tempting, but can lead to misunderstandings without additional explanations. For example, slight soil at the edges of a print is one thing, but in the center of a composition it is quite another. Likewise, a worm/insect hole that minimally affects the image is more acceptable than wormage in key areas of the design.

There are also differences in the degree to which collectors and curators tolerate condition problems. For example, a rare 18th-century work in only moderately good condition might still be considered acceptable, whereas a frequently encountered mid-to-late nineteenth century design in similar condition might stir up little interest.

Condition descriptions at

We use a conservative and transparent approach to the descriptions of impression, color, and condition. We do so honestly and to the best of our ability, recognizing that subjectivity must play some role. As you will be viewing our inventory via an Internet presentation, we have tried to offer information that image scans alone cannot reveal. Thus even if you might, for example, disagree with our description of a particular print's condition as "good" — perhaps you would even say it is "very good" — you can at least read the details about condition to help you decide whether its condition meets your collecting standards.

A six-point scale

The following terms have been used to describe the quality and condition of prints featured on our website. Please note that these descriptions should serve only as general guidelines and that describing overall condition can become complicated when certain aspects of preservation fall into one category while others do not. In those cases we have applied a conservative assessment of condition:

  1. Excellent: As near to pristine as possible; sharp impression with unbroken lines; unfaded color probably unchanged from the day the colors were printed; faultless condition. Ukiyo-e prints in "excellent" (unblemished) condition are uncommon — even in museum collections (especially 18th-century ukiyo-e, or early 19th-century kamigata-e) — and the term should be used for specimens only in the most remarkable states of preservation.
  2. Very Good: Only very slight changes from the original state; impression still sharp and showing no obvious wear from the block; color very close to unfaded with only a slight diminution of hue intensities, where even the fugitive ukiyo-e colors of the 18th century (esp. the blues, reds, and purples) are preserved close to their original color; condition barely changed with very minor defects such as very slight soil at the edges.
  3. Good: Some noticeable changes from the original state; impression good but showing some wear; color loss evident although some hues might still be well preserved; organic purple (often a mixture of red and blue) typically faded to reddish-brown, blue to bluish gray, red to pale red or rose, green to blue, and yellow diminished; condition shows some slight soil or minor creasing, wormage only minor; toning minimal where paper only slightly darker than the original paper color.
  4. Moderately Good: Noticeable and mostly significant changes from original state, but the overall condition retains some aspects of original quality; wear in keyblock lines and registration of colors sometimes off; colors all faded to some extent, with the most fugitive colors very faded (blue now gray, purple now light brown or tan); soiling, toning, and creasing obvious and beginning to affect overall appearance of print.
  5. Fair: Substantial changes from original state; impression shows wear throughout in line quality or in color registration and color saturation; colors mostly faded with only weak hues remaining; soiling, toning, and creasing detracts noticeably from overall appearance of the print.
  6. Poor: Excessively changed from original state; badly worn out block produced weakened keyblock lines or poor color registration; colors mostly or completely faded; substantial soiling, toning, and creasing; other damages may also be present, such as tears, paper losses, water damage, etc.

The preceding comments are based in part on my web page FAQ - Grading at Viewing Japanese Prints. © 2004 by John Fiorillo

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