Collecting guide: Japanese woodblock prints | Christie's (2023)

Learn more about the landscapes, courtesans, actors, warriors and monsters depicted in ukiyo-e, and why Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige belong in the pantheon of all-time great artists

Edo and a new wave in Japanese art

The year 1600 was a momentous one for Japan. It was then that Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power, unifying the country after years of conflict among rival warlords.

As shogun, he named Edo (modern-day Tokyo) as his seat of government, transforming the provincial backwater into a showcase for the nation’s new dawn.

By the mid-18th century, Edo was the largest city on Earth, with a population of one million. The Tokugawa dynasty would rule until 1868, and the era became known as the Edo period.

It was a time of peace and prosperity, and the arts flourished. Particularly splendid were the ukiyo-e (‘woodblock prints’) — works known for their unusual viewpoints, abrupt cropping, exquisite stylisation, and patches of vivid, unshaded colour.

According to Christie’s Japanese Art specialists,Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) belong in the pantheon of all-time great artists.

In 2017,Hokusai’s In the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (aka The Great Wave) set a new auction record for a Japanese woodblock print, fetching $943,500 at Christie’s in New York.

In black and white: sumizuri-e

Japanese woodblock printing dates back to the 8th century, when it was used to reproduce texts, especially Buddhist scriptures. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that books were printed with illustrations, which in turn paved the way for standalone images.

(Video) Real Or Fake? A quick guide to the basics of appraising Japanese Woodblock Prints ( Ukiyoe )

Initial images were black-and-white sumizuri-e prints made with black ink. An artist’s drawing would be transferred from paper to a cherry-wood block, which was carved and then inked, before blank sheets of paper were laid on top.

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) was an acknowledged master, best known for his quasi-calligraphic line.

The introduction of colour: nishiki-e

Printing in more than one colour was tricky: it wasn’t until the 1740s that green and pink were tentatively introduced. A huge breakthrough came in 1765, whenSuzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) mastered a process that accommodated an array of colours.

The resulting prints were called nishiki-e (‘brocade pictures’). They were created by making a set of woodblocks, starting with the ‘key-block’ which has the outline fully carved in relief. The key-block was then printed, and the resulting proofs used to then make additional woodblocks, one for each area of colour. Each colour woodblock would then be printed in turn, using a registration system that would allow careful alignment of each block.

When we think of Japanese prints today, it tends to be the glorious, full-colour examples made after Harunobu that we have in mind.

By the 19th century, artists were producing remarkably subtle effects such as the shifting tones of Hiroshige’s outstanding sunsets and expanses of water.

The pursuit of pleasure: courtesans and kabuki actors

The subject matter of ukiyo-e also evolved over the period.

(Video) Why Collect Japanese Woodblock Prints

To show their loyalty to the shogun, feudal lords were required to spend one year in Edo for every year they devoted to their family domains outside. They arrived in Edo with a retinue of samurai and other attendants, creating a large itinerant community.

To entertain them, an official pleasure district, the Yoshiwara, was created. Its restaurants, teahouses, theatres and brothels proved equally popular with Edo’s new merchant class and turned its courtesans and kabuki actors into stars.

There was a market for pictures of these early celebrities, and woodblock prints — many being produced in larger and larger numbers at lower costs — were the ideal way to reach it. It seems that in the early 19th century each print cost roughly the same as a bowl of noodles.

The literal translation of ukiyo-e is ‘pictures of the floating world’, a reference to the philosophy of living in the moment and enjoying transient pleasures of the sort on offer in the Yoshiwara.

Among the leading artists of this time was Utamaro, who is renowned for his sensuous depictions of sumptuously dressed women. In 2016, his Deeply Hidden Love fetched €745,800 at a French auction house sale in association with Christie’s — the second-highest price ever paid for a Japanese print at auction.

The shift to landscapes

In the 19th century, ukiyo-e artists shifted their focus to landscapes — in part, due to an increase in travel made possible by five major new highways that connected Edo with the rest of the country.

The two greatest landscape artists were Hiroshige and Hokusai. In his famous series, ‘Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido’, Hiroshige captured sites and scenes along the 300-mile highway to Kyoto.

(Video) How to Spot Japanese Woodblock Prints by Dr. Lori

For his monumental series, ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’, meanwhile, Hokusai focused on the sacred mountain, Mount Fuji, visible from that highway, depicting it from different viewpoints in different seasons. The Great Wave was one of these.

Warriors and other Japanese heroes

The other big subject for 19th-century ukiyo-e artists was warriors. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) illustrated the exploits of legendary Japanese and Chinese heroes, revelling in fantastical tales of their battles with killer carp, malignant giant toads, and octopuses taller than buildings. He brought drama, dynamism and imagination to the medium — and proved hugely popular.

The influence of ukiyo-e on Western artists

In foreign policy, the Edo period was marked by isolationism. In fact, Japan all but abandoned trade with other nations, as well as banning travel in and out of the country.

When the final Tokugawa shogun was ousted in 1868, however, the situation changed. As Japan opened its borders, ukiyo-e prints began to be exported to the West.

As they started appearing in Europe and the United States in large numbers, artists includingVan Gogh, Monet, Degas, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec were captivated by them.

The market for ukiyo-e today

More recently, the market for ukiyo-e has strengthened since around 2013.

Major exhibitions, such asHokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum in 2017, have played their part in this re-evaluation: following the Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009, the record for his prints at auction has been broken twice, first with Miyamoto no Musashi Attacking the Giant Whale in 2018.Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2022 focused on another, overlooked master painter of period.

(Video) The Japanese Woodblock Prints on Our Walls

Hokusai is still the biggest name internationally, thanks to the ubiquity of images such as The Great Wave and Red Fuji. In 2019, two years after the former set a new world record, a print of Red Fuji sold for £507,000 at Christie’s in New York.

The wonderful thing about ukiyo-ewoodblocks is that there truly is something for everyone. After all, the golden age of ukiyo-e spanned three centuries and included many different artists working in different genres.

For those entering the market, Hiroshige tends to be popular, particularly his visions of nature and landscape. While popular designs in good condition can fetch high prices, it is possible to purchase good Hiroshige prints for around £5,000.

Broadly speaking, the more eminent the artist, the pricier the work. But other factors influence price, too: an early impression of a print is superior to a later one, for instance, as woodblocks became worn after repeated use. Condition is also important, as woodblock prints an be affected by fading, wormholes, tears and restoration, which can all greatly impact the value of a print.

Sign up today

The Online Magazine delivers the best features, videos, and auction
news to your inbox every week


Framing and care for your ukiyo-e

Because of the vegetable-based pigments used, Japanese prints are light-sensitive and colours can fade. Collectors are therefore advised to frame them behind UV-filtering glass on an acid-free mount and hang them in a dimly lit space, out of direct sunlight.

(Video) Woodblock Print Value

The alternative is to keep them unframed in archive boxes, between sheets of Japanese hosho paper, to be brought out and enjoyed as the mood takes you. If stored well, Japanese prints are incredibly durable, and should provide pleasure for many generations to come.


How to determine value of Japanese woodblock prints? ›

Ultimately, the best way to determine quality or worth of a woodblock print, notes Plumer, is to bring it to a museum or auction house expert that specializes in Asian art. Depending on maker and quality, the price of a print could range greatly, so getting a specialist's opinion is crucial before bidding and buying.

How do you date a Japanese woodblock print? ›

The Date of a Picture

Often you will see a date seal, which tells the month and year that the print was made. Before 1873, the Japanese calendar was based on the Chinese one, with years calculated on a twelve year cycle, and named after animals.

Are Japanese wood block prints valuable? ›

Japanese woodblock prints range in value from a few hundred dollars to more than $1 million. Exceptional examples by master printmakers like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro, which tend to make infrequent appearances on the open market, fetch impressive prices due to their age and rarity, said von Seibold.

How do you tell if a Japanese print is an original? ›

Authenticating a Japanese print involves the assessment of an array of attributes, including key block lines, quality of colors, types of papers, style of block cutting or printing, size of paper or image, and likelihood of reproduction.

How do you find out what prints are worth? ›

How can I value my print or picture?

How do you know if a print is valuable? ›

The rarer the print the higher the price. If a print is a part of a smaller edition, it will be more valuable, due to its exclusivity. If however, the print is a part of a larger edition than it will be less valuable. Open editions, on the other hand, are cheaper to buy, but they are also less likely to rise in value.

What is the best known Japanese woodblock print? ›

Ukiyo-e is the best-known type of Japanese woodblock art print.

What is the most famous Japanese woodblock print? ›

When thinking of Japanese woodblock prints, the first image that springs into the minds of most will be Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa. He is famed for his many landscapes showing waterfalls, bridges, and mountains—especially Mount Fuji—but also produced many pictures of ghosts, wildlife, and erotic imagery.

Are Japanese prints a good investment? ›

Should you buy Japanese prints for investment? The answer almost invariably is—don't do it. If you buy Japanese prints because you love them rather than expect to make money, it's hard to see how you can lose—assuming you've done at least a little research before buying.

What does the red stamp on Japanese art mean? ›

The Artist's Seal

Below or right next to almost every signature on a ukiyo-e woodblock print is a seal. This seal, always done in red, is the secondary mark of the artist. An artist may decide to either use a certain seal for most or all of their career, or use several different ones, changing them periodically.

How do you identify a Japanese artist's signature? ›

Usually, an artist's signature is a combination of kanji characters, arranged in vertical groups, that are read downwards, from right to left. Very often the signature only consists of one vertical group: two characters, followed by a suffix: ga or hitsu ('designed by', see the examples below).

How can you tell the difference between an original and a print? ›

The Short Answer

To sum it up, the difference between prints and original works of art is that the original is the only one of its kind, is usually signed by the artist, and may contain a little more depth than a print of the same work. (Just because of the texture of the paint on the original surface.)

How do you tell if you have a print or original? ›

Distinguishing a Print from a Painting

A clear difference between a print and a painting is the texture of the surface. Paintings typically have raised brushstrokes. The dots of ink on the print are flat. You can also find signs of the artist's work on original paintings.

What is an original woodblock print? ›

A woodblock print image is first designed by the artist on paper and then transferred to a thin, partly transparent paper.

Do numbered prints have any value? ›

Artists typically now number their prints so that collectors will know that this print edition is limited and that their print is part of the official edition. The numbering of a print does not in itself make that print any more or less valuable, but it does give collectors some important facts about the print.

Are old prints worth money? ›

Prints can in fact be very valuable, especially those by renowned artists, rare prints or old prints in good condition. Prints are a bit of a minefield when it comes to the value, which is often based on the production process and the artist's involvement in the creation of the print.

Are Numbered prints worth more? ›

As far as print run numbers are concerned, the rule is simple: the smaller the number the bigger the value. First impressions in the print run usually reach higher prices since they are considered to be the closest to the artist's original idea.

What are the most valuable prints? ›

10 Most Valuable Photography Prints
  • “Le Violon d'Ingres” - Man Ray (2022) - $12.4m.
  • “The Flatiron” - Edward Steichen (2022) - $11.8m.
  • “Phantom” - Peter Lik (2014) - $6.5m.
  • “Rhein II” - Andreas Gursky (2011) - $4.4m.
  • “Spiritual America” - Richard Prince (2014) - $3.9m.
  • “Untitled #96” - Cindy Sherman (2011) - $3.9m.

What does a P mean on a signed print? ›

A/P stands for 'Artist's proof' and is a small number of prints that are the first ones printed deemed good enough by the artist. Usually the number of A/Ps is about 10% of the size of the main edition, and this mini-edition can be numbered or not.

What makes a print more valuable? ›

The value of a print is shaped by factors like quality, notoriety and rarity. The collectability of a print for example, will increase if the image is desirable, the artist is acclaimed or the edition length is limited. If a print run is small, then a print's value is enhanced by its relative rarity.

How much is ukiyo-e worth? ›

The value of a Japanese print can vary from $20 to $250,000 or more. The condition of an ukiyo-e print has a high influence on its value.

Which is the best way to tell the difference between a woodblock print and an engraving in a book? ›

They differ in that wood engraving is done on the end grain of a block of wood (often boxwood) whereas a woodcut will be done on the more easily worked side grain. In this photo the end grain is seen on the right hand side.

What are Japanese woodblock prints called? ›

Produced in their many thousands and hugely popular during the Edo period (1615 – 1868), these colourful woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e, depicted scenes from everyday Japan. Ukiyo-e literally means 'pictures of the floating world'.

What are ukiyo-e woodblock prints? ›

Ukiyo-e, often translated as "pictures of the floating world," refers to Japanese paintings and woodblock prints that originally depicted the cities' pleasure districts during the Edo Period, when the sensual attributes of life were encouraged amongst a tranquil existence under the peaceful rule of the Shoguns.

Which is the best material used in woodblock printing? ›

Shina plywood easily takes the top spot when it comes to wood blocks for printmaking. Not only is it perfectly flat and warp-resistant due to the alternating grain directions, the wood itself is perfectly suited to woodcut prints.

What is the most iconic of all ukiyo-e prints? ›

By far the best known Ukiyo-e print of all time, The Great Wave as it is commonly known, comes from Hokusai's series titled 36 Views of Mount Fuji. This print was widely celebrated and collected by European and French collectors. It has been copied and reproduced considerably over the centuries.

What is the meaning of the word ukiyo? ›

Ukiyo (浮世, "floating/fleeting/transient world") is the Japanese term used to describe the urban lifestyle and culture, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of Edo period Japan (1600–1867).

Can you make good money selling prints? ›

That being said, selling prints of your original pieces can allow you to make money as an artist that doesn't force you to part with your precious original artwork. For those who are keen to sell their work but may want to keep their originals, producing high quality art prints is an easy and affordable option.

Can art prints increase in value? ›

Limited edition prints usually retain or increase their value. However, this will depend on the artist and whether their demand and popularity increases over time. When considering the value of contemporary art, the artist is everything.

Why do millionaires invest in art? ›

Even if they don't know much about art, most people choose to have it because of their love or have some sentiment attached to it. They consider it as an investment as it helps them to diversify their portfolio. And lastly, they do want others to appreciate it if they have paid a high price for that artwork.

Can a foreigner get a hanko? ›

Aside from locals, foreign nationals in Japan also require to use a Hanko. In this article, you will know a few reasons why having such Japanese stamps is necessary when working and living in Japan. But before that, let us know what Hanko is and the two types recommended for foreigners in Japan.

How do I identify my Hanko stamp? ›

Usually, a Hanko seal has the owner's name in Kanji inscribed on a circle less than two centimeters across. The stamp is slim and narrow and can easily fit the palm of your hand. As a non-Japanese, you can choose which part of your name to use for your Hanko stamp. This will usually be written in Katakana.

What does a yellow dot mean for art? ›

- Other coloured dots (eg; green, yellow or black) may signify that an art work is on hold for a limited time (eg; overnight), while a prospective buyer decides whether or not to proceed with the purchase. Some galleries will put works on hold while others will not.

Is there an app to identify artist signatures? ›

Smartify is a free art identifier app for iOS and Android devices to identify artworks and artists.

How do I look up an artists signature? ›

How to Find an Artist by Their Signature? There are books available in large public libraries, art museums, and certain universities. Many online databases also let you search whole or partial signatures to find out the artist, which also works for initials or monograms.

How do you authenticate an artist signature? ›

How to Authenticate Art
  1. Create a handwritten signature. Create a handwritten signature different from the signature you use to sign legal documents. ...
  2. Be consistent about signing your work. ...
  3. Create a certificate of authenticity (COA) system. ...
  4. Documenting your process. ...
  5. Avoiding digital art theft. ...
  6. Cataloging your inventory.

Where can I sell my Japanese art? ›

Sotheby's provides unparalleled expertise in the appraisal and sale of classical and modern Japanese art, showcasing the beauty of Japanese artistry. When you are ready to sell a Japanese painting or consign a collection of Japanese art, our specialists can help you sell art from Japan for the highest price.

What is the best no type of Japanese woodblock print? ›

Ukiyo-e is the best-known type of Japanese woodblock art print.

Who is the best woodblock printmaker in Japan? ›

Utagawa Kuniyoshi [1797-1861] is celebrated as a true master of Japanese woodblock printing, and was immensely popular during his life.

How can I sell my art for a lot of money? ›

7 Different Ways To Earn Money With Your Artwork
  1. Sell Original Artwork.
  2. Sell Art Prints.
  3. Sell At An Art Fair.
  4. Make use of Instagram's shop tool.
  5. Open An Etsy Store For Your Art.
  6. Offer The Option Of Commissions.
  7. Licence Your Artwork.
  8. Making Money As An Artist Is A Process.
Mar 2, 2022

Where can I sell my art online in USA? ›

6 Best Places To Sell Art Online
  • eBay. eBay is popularly known as an auction website where buyers can get bits of everything they want. ...
  • Etsy. Etsy remains the go-to website for vintage resellers and artists. ...
  • Fine Art America. ...
  • Amazon. ...
  • Society6. ...
  • Your Ecommerce Store.

Who is the biggest selling artist in Japan? ›

Ayumi Hamasaki holds the record for being the best selling solo artist and being the only solo artist to sell more than 60 million in total.


1. Unboxing Japanese Prints From Auction For The First Time
(Mie Gallery - Japanese Prints)
2. Framing Woodblock Prints
(Mie Gallery - Japanese Prints)
3. Curator's Talk | Explore the Nature and History of Japan's Woodblock Printing
(JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles)
4. Japanese Woodblock Prints (1680–1938) - Andreas Marks / / Taschen Reviews
(Pontus Presents)
5. Japanese Woodblock Printmaking Workshop - A Printer's Tools and Workspace
(David Bull)
6. Buying Japanese Prints on eBay - Dangers, Tips, and Tricks.
(Mie Gallery - Japanese Prints)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Lidia Grady

Last Updated: 04/10/2023

Views: 5635

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (45 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Lidia Grady

Birthday: 1992-01-22

Address: Suite 493 356 Dale Fall, New Wanda, RI 52485

Phone: +29914464387516

Job: Customer Engineer

Hobby: Cryptography, Writing, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Calligraphy, Web surfing, Ghost hunting

Introduction: My name is Lidia Grady, I am a thankful, fine, glamorous, lucky, lively, pleasant, shiny person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.