How to Identify Antique Prints

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Antique prints are pictures on paper, silk or other materials. Paper is most common. Unlike paintings, these prints have been created through a process that transfers the image to the printed surface. Printing allows multiple copies to be made of the same image. Antique prints used a variety of processes that differed in both subtle, and obvious, ways from modern transfer processes.

Things You'll Need

  • 10x magnifying loop
  • Use the loop to examine areas of color on the print. Modern prints are commonly made using an offset process. Offset printing causes obvious patterns within the colored areas of the print. Hand-colored antique prints should show smooth coloring.

  • Examine the spacing of the lines on the rest of the print. Rather thick lines indicate copper plate engravings. Thinner lines are the mark of steel engravings. Both kinds of lines were used to create the images that appear in antique prints. Distinct patterns appear within the lined areas on modern reproductions. These patterns resemble the darker and lighter colored spotted lines that show up on areas of newsprint.

  • Use the loop to examine prints that do not show obvious lines. If shaded areas show evidence of being composed of tiny spots joined together, then these prints are probably aquatints. Aquatinting was a common 19th century printmaking process in which the ground of the plate is formed by minute particles of resin.

  • Examine the coloring and shading of the print. Prints that appear to be composed entirely of shades of gray are likely to be mezzotints. A mezzotint engraving was made by roughening the entire surface of the plate, and covering it with ink. The rougher an area, the more ink it retained, and thus the darker the color on the finished print. Look for signs of varying degrees of roughness on the antique print.

  • Look for signs of small holes on prints that do not show any of the previous characteristics. Smooth images are probably lithographs. The small holes in the paper were guides for joining together the various stones that were used to produce a particular lithograph. Each color required a separate stone, with each stone needing to be carefully matched to the position of the previous stone.

Tips & Warnings

  • Antique prints that employ proper printing techniques must still be reproduced on the appropriate material. Paper from before 1800 will usually show evidence of the fine wire mesh on which the paper was made; 19th Century prints were often made on very thin and fine India paper that is usually backed by another heavier sheet of paper.
  • Do not take signatures, or other notations, as an absolute indicator of the authenticity of an antique print. While such marks may indicate genuine antique prints, they too can be reproduced.

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