Whether you’re collecting or selling interests are old sports or tobacco cards, movie posters, programs, premiums or publications, I’ve consolidated many of my past columns on authenticating prints into one free volume, a free pdf e-book titled “Identifying Antique Commercial Printing Processes, And the Basics of Authenticating Antique and Art Prints.”
The color illustrated e-book focuses on identifying printing processes, but includes additional important chapters on authenticating and dating antique and fine art prints, and gives the essential basics for collectors, sellers, historians, students and art enthusiasts. Along with learning how to identify etchings, engravings, lithographs, photoengravings, woodcuts and other processes, topics include identifying and dating paper, how to identify modern reproductions and forgeries, alterations, proofs, editions, states, provenance, how to research the works of famous artists, and offers a plethora of practical tips.
The rest of this column includes a few interesting tips and tidbits from the book, big and small.
* Most antique prints are dried out and often brittle. Also, foxing (brownish red spots) is a good sign of age. Many collectors do the ‘smell test.’ If an otherwise old-looking print smells old and musty, that’s not proof but a sign of old age.
* Rusty staples as authenticity evidence. Many antique booklets, magazines and other publications were stapled. Antique staples have rusted dark, with the rust sometimes spreading to the paper. If the staples are bright and shiny, that’s evidence the item is a modern reproduction or at least has been restapled.
* Can a forger use the original, antique printing processes to make fakes? A question many collectors ask is if a forger can use the old original printing techniques to make fakes. The answer is it can be done and artists use old handmade techniques in their original art. However, it would take much time and skill, involve skills and equipment few have, and would only work on brand new creations.
With existing designs– well-known and documented antique trading cards, movie posters, etc that are pictured online– only modern printing techniques (almost always modern halftone ‘dot pattern’ printing) will work to reproduce the designs so they look good at the normal eye level. If you try to reproduce a known design using antique handmade processes, it will simply look bad at the normal, naked eye level.
The antique processes will only be useful when designing a brand new fake, a fake where the design is totally made up and never before existed. Some call these ‘fantasy’ items.
* There is a simple lab test to date printing. For mystery items, such as the just mentioned fantasy prints and forgeries, forensic ink and chemistry experts can date the relative age of printing by determining how dried out is the ink.
Pen and ink on paper slowly dries out over time. By determining the dryness of the ink, the expert can tell you if the ink was applied recently or long ago. It requires that a small sample be removed from the print, expert laboratory testing, and there will be a cost, but this test will give evidence as to whether the printing on a questioned print was done long ago or recently. This test is simple has often been used to identify recent forgeries in court, especially of handwritten letters and documents.
* About all those Reproduction Tin Signs. In the 1980s and 90s there were a plethora of old fashioned-style metal signs fantasy items and reproductions, including of sports themes– baseball star Joe Jackson equipment, Ted Williams Root Beer, etc. They were sold as reproductions not originals, though identity and age is often lost in the over the years shuffle.
These reproductions were lithographs produced in large numbers. There is a large upfront cost to making lithographs– making the designs, original art, setting up printing press, etc.– and a large print run is required to lower the cost per sign. These reproductions were made before digital technology made things easier to design and inexpensive to print in small runs.
The key is these reproductions are all over the place, found for sale and auction regularly online and at antique stores, and the potential buyer who looks or asks around would know this.
Original antique signs are very limited in number, often with only a handful or fewer of a particular example known to exist and it will be easy to identify if they have been mass reproduced.
It is also important to note that the reproductions are often of a standard modern size, and the originals are often in a different size. If yours is of different size than the plentiful reprints, that is a sign yours might be original, or at least isn’t one of those mass reprints.
A last note on poster and sign reproductions is that many repros today are digital, many made on home computer printers. As these are often made from images taken from the internet and blown up into large size, the images are often of noticeably lesser quality, even when viewing an online auction on your computer at home. An original chomolithograph advertising poster or sign usually had highest quality graphics, with bright colors and exquisite detail. A cheap reproduction will often have washed out colors and muted details.
Original color lithography retained its bright colors and detail if stored well, and many are surprised at how bright the colors are on an antique original. In fact, some new collectors can be worried they own a reprint because the graphics look so bright and new.
* One giveaway of some modern fantasy pieces is the modern text font. Brian Wentz of BMW cards taught me this tip. The font used is modern forgeries often didn’t exist in the antique period. When authenticating a valuable and unique 1915 Babe Ruth premium, one thing I did was to verify that the text font had been used in the circa 1915 period by looking online at other prints from the period. A maker of those modern ‘old fashioned’ tin signs (sold as reproductions not originals) said he had to use modern fonts, because he was unable to recreate the original fonts.
* Judging authenticity is rarely done in a vacuum. For the collector, making judgments is usually done within a context. Usually the context is deciding whether or not to purchase and how much to pay.
A knowledgeable collector might take a wild chance on a foreign print if the price is $15 and it will look sharp on the wall, but pass if the price is $500. A collector might purchase an unfamiliar print if he knows the seller to be knowledgeable, but wouldn’t give it a second glance if the seller had a reputation for selling fakes.
For the collector it is best to start by purchasing inexpensive items, whether you are buying prints, autographs or any memorabilia.
Leave the thousand dollars purchases for a later day. All beginners make mistakes, whether it’s overvaluing something or accidentally purchasing a reprint or altered print. Accidentally purchasing a reprint for $5 is a good learning experience. Accidentally purchasing a fake for $5,000 can be a disaster.