Identifying Original Currier & Ives Prints

Dr. Gary Kunkelman, a noted dealer of American historic prints and maps, has been kind enough to prepare the following primer on the identification of Currier & Ives originals for the Currier & Ives foundation. Gary has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from The University of Pennsylvania, where he studied early American prints and printmakers, and has been collecting Currier & Ives lithographs for nearly three decades.

Evaluating Authenticity of Currier & Ives Prints

By Gary Kunkelman, Ph.D.

The firms "N. Currier" and "Currier & Ives" issued more than 7,000 different print titles during their history.

Numerous reprints, copies and forgeries have been produced in the years since the firm closed, making Currier & Ives lithographs some of the most reproduced images in history.

The good news for collectors is that most reproductions are not that hard to identify. Here is what you should look for:

Read the small print. On a Currier & Ives original you will generally find:

For some of the following steps you'll need a reference book. "Currier & Ives Prints, An Illustrated Check List, by Frederic A. Conningham" is the preferred collector's reference, and a must-have if you're going to be buying, selling or collecting Currier & Ives lithographs.

1. A reproduction's title section will sometimes give more information than an original print does.
You'll know it's not authentic if you see the name of any other printer or publisher (often with a modern copyright symbol), or an address other than New York, a 20th century date, or words such as reprinted from, republished by, from the collection of, courtesy of, or from (or after) an original by.

2. Check the print's title.
If it is different in any way from the titles listed in the Conningham book, even by a word, it is most probably a reprint.

3. Examine the printing and coloring.
Except for a very small handful of later prints produced by an early form of chromo-lithography or collotype printing, originals prints were lithographed in black ink, then hand-colored with watercolors. Modern reproductions printed by photo offset can be identifyied by following these steps:

Look at the print under a magnifying glass. A symmetrical dot pattern and uniform dots mean a reproduction. On a genuine C&I print, dots will be replaced by a jumble of irregular dots, dashes, and non-symmetrical patterns.

Look at areas of color. In a printed reproduction, colors are made up of dots of primary colors and black (for example, purple will be created by magenta and cyan and perhaps black dots; green by cyan and yellow, and so on; to get a feel for this, examine a magazine picture under magnification). In the hand-colored areas of an original, you may see irregular black dots, but no cyan, magenta or yellow dots. The actual color in an original will appear solid.

Hold the sheet horizontally to the light. Hand-colored portions of the print may look different from surrounding paper, water colored sections may appear dull, whereas gum arabic (varnished) areas should appear shiny. The water color may seem to lay on the surface. A modern reproduction has an unvarying surface texture.

Is the coloring "neat?" Does it suggest obvious care and attention to detail? Remember, Currier & Ives produced "cheap and popular" prints, colored quickly on an "assembly line" by young immigrant women who weren't artists. Look for broad swaths of the brush, a limited number of hues, and color extending "outside the lines." Only the large folio prints, individually colored by skilled artists, show fine detail and obvious skill.

4. Check folio size and measurements.
Most Currier & Ives lithographs are small folios (image area about 8" x 10"-12"). You also may find medium folios (image area about 9"-10" x 13"-19"), and large folios (over 14" x 20"). Very small folios-less than 7"x 9"-- are rare.

Is the print the right folio size? Keep in mind that each print was issued in one size, not in several different sizes. If, for example, you find an 8" x 10" "Clipper Ship Dreadnought" print, it is a reproduction, Currier & Ives produced this print only as a large folio. A very small folio "American Homestead- Winter" isn't right either as the original was only produced as a small folio. (Conningham's Check List or a good price guide, such as Currier's Price Guide to Currier & Ives Prints, lists folio sizes).

Measure the image area, from black rule to black rule, horizontally and vertically (vignettes-- some of the "girl" prints, for example-- don't have ruled borders). Print size should correspond closely to the one listed in Conningham. Measurements may be off slightly (usually smaller) due to changes over time, primarily from atmospheric conditions. However, a difference of more than 3/8" in the longest measurement of a small folio (a bit more in larger prints) raises an alarm. Reproductions are usually made to fill a specific area, such as a frame or a specific page size, so they generally will not be the same size as an original.

If prints are a modern (standard) size, say 8" x 10", or 8 1/2" x 11," or 11" x 17" be wary. Those "standards" are 20th century conventions, not 19th. Over their lifetime, most Currier & Ives lithographs have been trimmed, usually rather crudely and unevenly, to fit available frames.

5. Examine the paper.
Currier & Ives used a sturdy rag paper, a bit heavier than modern construction paper in weight and feel. Paper for large folios is heavier and stiffer still, almost like lightweight card stock. The best way to acquire a "feel" for the paper is to handle originals. Lacking that, keep in mind that modern paper is noticeably different from the old rag paper. If the paper is thin, slick, or shiny, you likely have a reproduction.

Under magnification, original paper will often show fluffy cotton fibers or, in later prints, even small splinters of wood pulp. Original Currier & Ives paper was white or slightly off-white. Most prints have yellowed or browned with time, but time toning may be uneven, different on front and back, and perhaps at the edges, where the frame lip covered the print edges. If it looks "too perfect," examine the picture closely. It could be that the "patina" is imparted by colored paper or printing, which means a reproduction.

Is a watermark visible when the print is held up to light? If so, it's not an original. Finally, ask yourself again, does the print look "too good?" There are pristine prints, but not many. Like people, prints tend to show their age. Yes, a good conservator can peel years off the appearance of many an old print, but you are most likely to acquire conserved prints from a dealer, top-flight auction house or serious collector, not from a country sale, flea market or the walls of departed relatives.

Even after all this, can a reproduction slip by? Sure. Rare is the dealer or serious collector who hasn't paid for the "education" that a knock-off provides. These teachers generally come in the form of re-strikes from the original lithography stones, good reproductions, and fakes intended to deceive.

Re-strikes:
A few dozen Currier & Ives titles were reissued from original lithography stones. Max Williams' early-1900's re-strikes of large folio clippers are deceptively close to the "real thing." Their thinner paper is one tip-off. (If the print is still in the original frame, you may find a Max Williams label). Re-strikes of the "Darktown" comics by S. Lipshitz or Joseph Koehler are easier to pick out, generally carrying the new publisher's name. (Be cautious with the "Darktowns" in general... they're a highly reproduced series.)

Good Reproductions:
The better reprints can be "foolers," particularly large folio copies that are partly hand-colored, heightened with gum arabic, and "the right size." They may be old enough to show age toning, or reproduced by the collotype process, which doesn't give telltale symmetrical dots. Some of these reproductions, such as the 1942 Andres prints, originally carried a printer's identification at the bottom edge which frequently has succumbed to scissors. Here again, paper weight is a key to identification as reproductions are generally on thinner stock. Regarding the winter scene prints , pay special attention to snow on branches or rooftops. In authentic large folios, these areas are often highlighted with opaque white watercolor, whereas reproductions simply show the white of the paper.

Frauds:
The good ones can be very deceptive. An accomplished knock-off artist has learned how to avoid broadcasting his work as a fake. He'll know the tricks to making a fresh creation look ancient, and may even proffer a convincing tale (rescued from the wall of an upstate New York - Ohio, New Hampshire-- farmhouse, undisturbed for half a century, the lovely old folks recently passed on, heirs want to settle the estate, etc., etc.) The good news is outright forgeries are rare, and they invite a second look because they are generally "top end" large folios like trains, clipper ships and winter scenes. Among the small folios, trains seem to be most frequently faked.
As with most things in life, your best defense is common sense. A reputable auctioneer or dealer will warrant authenticity and issue a prompt refund if there's a problem. If a print doesn't pass the smell test (it just doesn't seem right) move on or seek expert opinion. A knowledgeable dealer or curator can be a real ally. Most are very willing to share their knowledge, and the great majority enjoy nothing more than "talking prints."

The Currier & Ives Foundation.

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