Identifying Antique Prints
A Basic Print Primer

Question #1 - Is it Modern Offset?

First a word of caution. There are many factors that go into making a determination of whether or not a print is original. But the the very first thing you need to do is to make certain your print was not done using modern offset printing, the most common technique of printing today.

Luckily, this is very easy to do with the help of an 5X to 10X magnifying loop. (The 5X loop shown opposite as an example is available for $7.99 from Radio Shack). They are also known as "linen testers."

If you are interested in antique prints, you really do need to make a small investment in a loop (they usually cost less than $10). You've seen dealers pull these out of their pockets at Antique Fairs, unfold them, and use them to peer intensely at an object. Well think how you impressive you will look with one of your very own!

Once you have your loop, take a look at an illustration in an ordinary magazine. Offset printing is used to print magazines, so you can get used to identifying what you do not want to see in an antique print.

Enlarge the first picture opposite to get an idea of what offset printing looks like. You can see the pattern particularly clearly in the pink petals of the flower. In an antique hand-painted print, you would see smooth tonalities in the area of color, with no "color-separation" pattern.

The second image shows the enlargement of a hand painted copperplate print of a Hummingbird, an 18th Century original. The colored areas are smooth and do not have the typical offset pattern.

Lastly, look at the 19th Century steel plate fashion print in the third photo. There are dots, but these are the shading dots created by the impression of the steel plate. The areas of color, applied over the printed outline, are fluid and smooth. There is no pattern in them. Look at her hair, and her red bow where the painter has in fact made a little error in coloration. This is an original 19th Century print.

Once you have established that your print is not offset, you will want to examine it more closely to establish what printing technique as used - woodblock, engraving, etching, aquatint, steel plate, lithograph, etc.. Here things get a little more complicated. If you want to learn more about how to do this, one of the classic references on the subject is the book: How to Identify Prints, by Bamber Gascoigne. It is available on Amazon.

Detail of modern offset printing showing the typical pattern Detail of a hand colored print. Note that the areas of color are fluid and without pattern.

Above: Offset printing displays this very typical pattern under magnification.

Right: In the late 19th Century steelplate print opposite, watercolor was applied over a black and white print. The faint pink tones in the cheeks and lips and the brown of the hair are smooth and fluid - there is no modern printing pattern.


Next Step - Looking at the Paper - (text coming soon!)


Modern Offset Printing
First enlarge this image to see the offset printing pattern generated by modern print making techniques. Pay particular attention to the areas of light color where you can see the pattern clearly. This is a reproduction done on a modern printing press.

Hand colored Copperplate Print
Now enlarge the image below. Note that the colors in between the lines do not have any pattern. They are smooth where the watercolor was applied in between the printed lines.

Original Antique Hand colored Steel Plate Print
from La Mode Illustree
Enlarge to see how it should look under a linen loop. The colored areas are smooth and without offset patterns.

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