Month: January 2013

15th century counterfeit protection

15th century counterfeit protection

German painter and artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) is ranked as one of history’s master printmakers, perhaps the most technically skilled in Western art. During his time, his etchings, engravings and woodcuts were emulated and glorified, and owned by kings. To help prevent his works from being counterfeited or plagiarized, Durer made his prints so detailed and expertly crafted that no one else had the talent to copy them. Realize that back then there were no such things as Xeroxes, photocopiers or computer scanners.  To recreate a print the copier had to do the whole thing over by hand. Pictured is Durer’s circa 1497 woodcut ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” showing incredible detail for the laborious woodcut process.

Tempera paintings

1400s Botticelli tempera painting of a young woman

1400s Botticelli tempera painting

Tempera, often called egg tempera, is an ancient type of paint and painting that pre-dated oil paint in popularity. Many ancient Egyptian and Western Medieval paintings were tempera, and the paintings of Michelangelo and Botticelli are tempera. Tempera was the most popular form of painting until the 1500s, when it was replaced by oil paint. Some artists today still paint in tempera. 20th century American Andrew Wyeth is the most famous modern egg tempera painter. The paint usually has the color pigment mixed in egg yolk, thus the name egg tempera.

Due to the distinct paint qualities, tempera has a look and feel much different to oil painting. Tempera paint is thin in consistency and dries very fast. This means the artist painstakingly paints in careful, thin brush strokes and slowly adds up the lines to create the overall detail. When you look closely at at a tempera, the graphics are usually made up of thin lines, often overlapping and cross hatching to build up color and detail. These lines mean the painting often closely resembles a color pencil drawing or pastel painting.

There are no big, bold brush strokes and thick globs of color as can appear on oil and acrylic paintings. Tempera paint is never thick on the canvas or board as with oil. Tempera paintings usually have a matte finish, whereas oil paintings tend to be glossy.

Tempera paintings tend to have overall brighter colors and with less contrast in the details. Notice the lack of contrast in the face of the Botticelli painting shown here. The shadows of her skin are lighter and more gradual than the stark dark to light that often appears in oil paintings. The lighter contrast is because the artist created the details and colors by carefully building them up thin overlapping line by thin overlapping line.

How do you know if one of those big John James Audubon bird prints is original?

American_FlamingoThe wildly popular large Audubon “Birds of America” prints were originally printed in the 1820s-30s, and have been reprinted many times since, including as everyday posters. Luckily for collectors, identifying the original large prints are surprisingly easy if you know what to look for.

An original large 1820s-30s Audubon “Birds of America” print should have the following four qualities (There are also genuine small (1/8th) size Audubon prints, but this brief essay is only about the jumbo versions):

1) Measure about 26×39 inches if untrimmed. A reprint can be the same size, but an untrimmed odd size is a giveaway a print is a later reprint.

2) A “J Whatman” watermark in the paper. A watermark is best seen when holding the paper up in front of a bright light. Many of today’s computer printer and typing papers have watermarks, so you can practice your looking skills on paper around the house. The Audubon watermarks will say J Whatman and a year of printing below (ala ‘1831’).

It’s possible that if the watermark was at the very edge of the paper and the print was trimmed that the watermark may be missing or obscured. For the potential buyer it’s best to make sure that watermark is in the paper, and leave the “was trimmed off” watermarks for other buyers.

3) Presence of a plate mark. A plate mark is an indentation in the paper that surrounds the printed graphics. Caused by the pressure from the metal printing plate against the paper during printing, it appears only with certain types of printing techniues. Some reproductions might have fake plate marks, but most will have none.

  1. Hand colored colors. The colors on the original large Audubons were painted by hand. Under close examination, this will be apparent. If under a strong magnifying glass, the colors have a fine multicolor dot pattern like on a magazine picture, it’s a later photomechanical reproduction. A small few of reproductions have hand painted colors, but the majority of modern reprints will have the multi-color dot pattern.

If a print has all of the above qualities, it’s near certain that you have an original on your hands. The watermark in particular is a strong sign of originality, as it doesn’t appear on any known reprint sets. As a reproduction can be hand colored, be of the correct size or have a plate mark, remember to check all four qualities and don’t focus on just one.

Authentic coloring?


1800s Harper’s Woodcuts, or woodcuts prints from the magazine Harper’s Weekly, are popularly collected today. The images show nineteenth century life, including stage actors, sports, US Presidents, war, high society, nature and street life. Though originally black and white, some of the prints have been hand colored over the years. As age is important to collectors, prints that were colored in the 1800s are more valuable than those colored recently. The problem is that modern ideas lead collectors to misdate the coloring.

Due to their ideas about the old fashioned Victorian era, most people assume that vintage 1800s coloring will be subtle, soft, pallid and conservative. However, 1800s coloring was typically bright, gaudy, bold and even tacky to modern taste. As Victorian people didn’t have color televisions, motion pictures or video games, and were restricted in their travel, they liked their images of exotic places and faraway celebrities to be colored exciting. A learned forger might knowingly use historically incorrect colors, as he knows the average person today would consider authentic colors to be fake.


A very basic guide to identifying ceramics

Ceramics (cups, bowls plates, jugs, figures, etc) are divided into three major categories: stoneware, earthenware and porcelain. This post is a very quick identification to which of the three is that figurine in the antique store, bowl in the estate stale, or coffee cup your kitchen cabinet. It is usually easy to make an identification, though there will always be some gray areas where it’s hard to tell if something falls into one or the other.

Porcelain, which has that signature refined, smooth, thin, ‘dainty tea cup’ look, is the only of the three categories that is translucent. This means if you hold up the item to the light you can see light come through. If you pass your fingers between the item and the light, you will see the shadow of your finger pass by.

Stoneware, which is opaque (doesn’t let through light), tends to be heavy and substantial. It can look more basic, handmade and primitive— ala that old time country folk art jug. Anywhere the object is unglazed the clay is darker, usually dark grey but also sometimes light brown, sometimes with specs in it, and has a rough texture, as it if was made out of a chunk of clay in middle school pottery shop. Stoneware cups, bowls, plates and similar usually have unglazed bottoms where you can see the rough, dark material. Due to being cooked at a higher temperature, stoneware can hold water even when unglazed—- thus the unglazed bottoms.

Earthenware, which is also opaque, is the most common form of ceramics. Most of your ‘department store’ dinner plates and coffee cups in your kitchen are earthenware. Unlike stoneware, earthenware is not waterproof when unglazed. This means earthenware is almost always glazed all over, including on the bottom. This is particularly true for a cup, bowl or jug that is intended to hold liquid. On an earthenware cup, plate or bowl the entire item will be glazed except for a thin white or off white rim at the bottom. That part is left unglazed so the item doesn’t go sliding across the dinner table. At this unglazed area, or any other glazed area such as a chip, the material is milky or chalky (unlike the coarse dark stoneware material).

Just remember that an earthenware cup, bowl or plate will be glazed on the bottom (except for the chalky rim), while heavy stoneware is unglazed on the bottom and has a darker, rough texture.

Identifying reproduction paintings

the_scream_mug-p168350160203512202b2gfh_400Many paintings have been reproduced. Reproductions range from the blatantly obvious to the more deceptive. I assume I don’t have to explain to you that the Mona Lisa on your umbrella isn’t the original. However reproductions can be more realistic, can be on canvas, framed and even with fake brush strokes. A number of well known artists have had their paintings reproduced. Leroy Neiman and Thomas Kincaid come to mind.

Identifying a reproduction is usually easy, though there might a few bit trickier instances. The following are a few things to look for:

** A fine color dot matrix pattern under high magnification. A photomechanical or digital reproduction of a painting or photograph will translate the original into a fine pattern of different tiny color dots. With strong magnifying glass or microscope examine a magazine photo or picture postcard to see what this dot pattern looks like. A painting is made with brush strokes of solid paint and will not have this maze of dots throughout the image. If you’ve identified this dot pattern you can stop. It’s not a painting. It’s a reproduction.

** With an oil or acrylic painting, there will be physically raised brush strokes that you can see and feel. Like a relief map. If you run your finger across the original Mona Lisa or your neighbor’s acrylic landscape, you’ll feel the brush strokes.

With watercolor and gouache (opaque watercolor) paintings there will be no such raised brush strokes, the surface can feel smooth and the painting can be on regular paper. This makes reproductions of these paintings more deceptive before you take a close look. Happily, that tiny color dots pattern under magnification will always give it away a reproduction.

In some professional reproductions, clear paint is added over the top of the print to simulate raised brush strokes, but upon examination the fake brush strokes won’t match up with the graphics and, looking closely from the side, the coating will be clear. These clear brush strokes are intended more as a superficial coating than anything to deceive. And you should still be able to see the tiny dots pattern through it.

** If a painting is supposed to be an acrylic or oil painting or anything with heavy paint, turn the painting around, put it in front of a light source and see how the image looks from behind. Oil and acrylic paint is an opaque, often thick substance and will block light (of course, then, that’s what opaque means). With a real oil or acrylic painting and its heavy paint, some parts of the image you can see while others will be completely blocked out by the paint. WIth a lithograph or digital print on canvas or paper, you should be able to see the whole graphics fine– as there is no paint to block the light.

*** The real Starry Night doesn’t come in calendar form or in 8×10 six packs at Target.

Manipulative gum companies and a famously rare baseball card

1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie

1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie

Though its value has fallen a bit in recent years, the pictured 1933 Goudey #106 Napoleon Lajoie has traditionally been one of the most coveted baseball cards due to its rarity. It was produced during the American depression as part of a colorful 240 card set by The Goudey Gum Company, a Boston manufacturer of chewing gum. As with most ‘bubblegum cards’ marketed to kids these baseballs cards were sold inside small wax paper wrapped packs with a stick or two of gum.

As a ploy to move their product, Goudey intentionally didn’t print card #106, the one shown here and depicting Hall of Fame player Lajoie. The reason was the collecting habit of kids back then was to finish a set, meaning collect one of each different card #1 thru #240. With #106 nonexistent, kids kept on buying packs in a futile attempt to finish their sets.

A small number of disappointed kids went as far to write Goudey to complain they couldn’t find the card #106. Goudey relented, printed up a small number #106 cards and mailed them only to the kids who wrote. Some of the 1933 Goudey #106 Napoleon Lajoies can be found with the original paperclip mark from how they were mailed to the kids.

* * * *

Even rarer than the Goudey Napoleon Lajoie, and for similar reason rare, is the 1923 Maple Crispette #15 baseball card. Maple Crispette was a Canadian candy that cards were sold with. As described on the cards’ backs, a complete set could be redeemed for a baseball, bat or a golve. To make the redemotions difficult and to sell more candy and cards, card #15 of Casey Stengel was made almost non existent. Today only one example of the Stengel card is known to exist.

Presenting old art ‘authentically’

Similar to the problem with translating poetry is the problem in trying to present old works of arts in modern times.

Many wish to present a Shakespeare play or Verdi Opera the way it was originally presented, and there are complaints about colorizing old black and white movies.

Advocates of original presentation often refer to a work of art presented in the original manner as being “authentic.”

There are a variety of problems in the presentation of old works. For example, the original work or presentation can be unrealistic to its subject. Shakespeare’s plays were written for and originally performed by male actors only. Juliet and Ophelia were performed by boys dressed as women. Even those who like the idea of original presentation prefer the inclusion of actresses, meaning they want a Shakespeare performance modernized.

A similar case is where a grandfather clock chimes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, yet the grandfather clock had not yet been invented in Caesar’s time. Some would argue that fixing this historical error would make the play more historically authentic. Others would counter that, while the grandfather clock clearly is a historical blooper, the play was intended as a work of art not a historical document, and ‘fixing’ every detail could lessen the play artistically. They might point out that a Paul Cezanne painting of an apple is supposed to represent an apple not look like an apple photographed, and those who criticize the painting for not being photorealistic miss the point.

Technical modernization can improve the audience’s perception of an old work. Improved technology makes Gone With The Wind look and sound clearer in the theatre today than in 1939. It would be a safe bet that Paul McCartney prefers listening to The Beatles on a CD player rather than on a 1965 record player. Listening to the 1965 record player is more authentic to a fan listening to the music on 1965 record player, but listening to a CD is more authentic to the music itself.

I’ll bet you that some old time Beatles fan has an unplugged vintage record player sitting on top of a CD player. This way he gets the old time look and the modern sound.

Presenting an old work must take into context the audience, its culture and sensibilities. A play, movie, novel or painting is continually presented to a modern audience. The language of Shakespeare was the language of the original audience. It is not the natural language of today’s audience. Today’s audience experiences the play differently. The use of boy actors in female parts won’t be viewed in the same way as an original audience viewed it. Boys playing girls and women would at the least distract most to all in a modern audience.

Even when presented ‘authentically’ (as originally presented), the modern audience won’t perceive an old work of art authentically, as they won’t experience it as the original (‘authentic’) audience did. Ironically, making modernizations can make the modern audience’s experience closer to the original audience’s experience. Making a work newer on one level can make it older on another.

Some recreations are less concerned with the art than the history. Even if the sound is considered unorthodox to modern ears, performing a Mozart symphony using period instruments, hall, dress and manners can be of enlightenment and enjoyment to a modern audience, especially if the audience itself participates in the recreation by dressing and acting historically.