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What factors affect the pricing of prints?

Yoshifune An array of factors may influence the price of ukiyo-e prints. What follows is a summary of the most likely components affecting valuation.

Artist: The reputation of an artist greatly affects the price of a print. Two designs of roughly equal aesthetic value can vary enormously in price if one were by an acknowledged master while the other were by a student or follower.

Design or subject: The type of design can have a significant impact upon cost. There are perennially appealing subjects in Japanese printmaking that always seem to command higher prices — charming portraits of mothers with children, attractive landscapes, beautiful young girls in colorful costumes, and so on. In contrast, subjects that may be more challenging typically fetch lower prices: an unfamiliar historical parable or a bloody samurai battle.

Originals and reproductions: The difference in valuations between original impressions and reproductions of ukiyo-e prints can hardly be overstated. A celebrated design by one of the great masters can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, whereas a finely made reproduction, even one created a century ago with all the deluxe printing techniques used in making the original impression, might be worth less than 1% of a high-end original.

Condition: The state of preservation generally has a huge impact on cost. Japanese prints that are well preserved can command high prices, especially when other cost-enhancing factors fall into place. The same design in two different states of preservation can realize prices that are worlds apart. Most collectors desire specimens as close to their original condition as possible, and many are willing to pay high prices for such prints.

Rarity: The rarity of a design will sometimes increase its value. Two prints by the same artist from the same period and of similar design would differ in price if one were known in many impressions while the other survived in only a few. In addition, artists who designed a large body of work may suffer in the market place because familiarity with their oeuvre diminishes the competitive desire of buyers.

Fashion or current trends: Prices are affected by the vicissitudes of popularity. Certain artists or designs can be highly sought after during one period, while in another almost neglected. When an explosion of interest drives up prices, it is possible that higher base-price levels will be established, even after the fashion frenzy subsides and the top prices fall.

Financial markets: Worldwide, national, and local financial markets will affect prices, either in the short or long term. The so-called "wealth factor" certainly plays a role in determining prices, as when larger numbers of buyers with more cash reserves increase competition and drive up prices. During highly speculative periods, prices can climb to extraordinary heights, only to fall dramatically when the financial market cools down and liquidity diminishes.

Scholarship/publications: Professional, academic, and amateur researchers can sometimes create a new appreciation for a certain artist or school, or perhaps a particular work or subject. They may also reintroduce a forgotten artist or discover an unknown one. Such critical analyses can occasionally increase the prices of prints as other researchers begin to refer to the new scholarship and dealers use the new publications to promote sales.

Exhibitions: Some museum or widely advertised gallery exhibitions have been influential in establishing a new baseline for prices. In effect, they confer a cachet upon an artist's body of work, as the public assumes the curators have judged the artist worthy of special consideration. Hence the exhibition is taken as proof of the artist's worthiness to be collected. Competition therefore increases and prices escalate.

Pre-marketing: There are also occasional museum or gallery exhibitions of important private or public collections just before the prints are sold (typically at major auction venues). In these instances, the museums or galleries benefit from the advertising and public exposure, drawing crowds of patrons to see their shows, while the owners and soon-to-be sellers benefit from the prestige associated with displaying the prints in a public forum, which may translate into higher prices when the collection is sold.

Provenance: There is among ukiyo-e collectors an inclination to appreciate a connection with the past, so if a print was once part of a well-known collection, it will frequently command a higher price. Sometimes this amounts to a kind of "autograph hunting," but it may well be that such provenance properly assigns a cachet to the print when its former acquisition was the result of an astute judgment or when it represents the kind of print rarely available to present-day collectors.

Local or specialized Interest: Certain artists, designs, subjects, or styles have greater appeal and command higher prices in some geographical areas or in some cultures than in others. Included under "specialized interest" are those instances in which only a few collectors (including institutions) vie with one another for works that do not ordinarily command the prices they are willing to pay. So a collector might pay a great deal more for a subject that he is specializing in, or a museum might pay a high price to acquire a sheet missing from a polyptych that they own.

Venue or source: The reputations of venues may have an effect on prices. A dealer with a laudable reputation will often obtain more for prints than would a little-known seller. The international auction houses typically handle the higher-priced art works and thus an association with these venues will sometimes have an effect on the prices realized. The auction environment also creates, at times, such a competitive atmosphere that it leads to "emotional or impulse buying." In such cases, bidders will pay more for prints than they would otherwise in more contemplative retail settings.

"New to the market": Occasionally there are collections whose contents have been "off the market" for extended periods. When long-unseen impressions or previously unknown designs of ukiyo-e prints make their way to the market place, the prints sell for higher than average prices simply because they are considered "fresh." Conversely, a normally desirable impression that repeatedly appears on the market may decrease in price as it becomes too "familiar" and raises questions about the reasons for continued resale.

The preceding comments are based in part on the topic What is my print worth? at my website Viewing Japanese Prints. © 2004 by John Fiorillo

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