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.
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.
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.
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.
© The Currier & Ives Foundation.