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How much is my Utamaro print worth?

A few years back, a woman approached me at my stand at an antiques fair and presented a woodblock print for my consideration. I was dealing predominantly in Japanese ceramics by that time, but she'd been redirected to me by a dealer who remembered I'd once sold Japanese prints. The print, a Meiji restrike of an Utamaro design, was charming, with colouring mellowed by the passage of time and a background of softly shimmering mica. The valuation of tens of thousands of pounds which had been expected was not forthcoming, and the resulting disappointment was entirely evident. The wonderful design lost all of its appeal for its owner. It saddened me.

I'm a realist. I know that prints have to be valued for insurance purposes, etc. But what grieves me is the apparent lack of interest in artistic value amongst so many who collect works of art. A thing of beauty is reduced to a figure in pounds and pence, and the work which went into creating it is overlooked; it's beauty remarked upon but of only secondary importance. I can value Japanese woodblock prints, but I choose not to. Their unique beauty, the subjects depicted, and the era within which they were created is of the utmost interest to me... their monetary value is not.

I am often asked to suggest particular artists or designs which will prove to be a sound financial investment for the future, and I try to explain that I am neither capable of presenting a magic formula that will guarantee a good return nor interested in doing so. The only way to avoid disappointment is to buy what brings you pleasure. If a design inspires you then buy it, if you are captivated by its beauty then buy it... if a purchase hangs on an assessment of the price tag and the likelihood that the figure recorded on it will double in twelve months time, then don't buy it.

The woman with the Meiji Utamaro came back to my stand at the closing of that fair. She didn't want to take the print home and offered it for sale. I bought it, and I still have it now. She visited me again when I returned to that venue, reminiscing about the days before our first meeting, when she had been the proud owner of a valuable Utamaro... which turned out not to be. She missed those days. She didn't miss the print.

Buy what you love. Buy what you would miss if it were gone.

6 Comment count
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That's My Last Duchess On The Wall

This is a sad commentary on the 'worth' of art. There is naturally a place for 'price', but when art's intrinsic importance has little importance, the artist's intentions seem defeated.

On the other hand, someone who appreciated the art ended up getting it.

One thing about books, except when it is a rare unit, the worth is in the text.

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Judging a book by its cover

That's very true.

That has reminded me though. Before I was a print dealer I was an antiquarian bookseller, and I did meet some very 'interesting' people. Such as the fellow who bought books based upon their fine bindings, and only those which matched his interior decor. Whereas the average reader requests a title by Dickens or a volume on Manet, this chap requested 'at least a foot's worth of deep red leather'.

Those were interesting times...

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Hello, Gina,

just came across this essay. Interesting because we just had an Utamaro print come into the gallery and busy researching him and the image seems rare. Glad to see another Red Roomer finds him so interesting.

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Now I'm intrigued...

I didn't see your response until today Steve... everything slips past me when I'm researching. And now I'm intrigued. It's always exciting to come across an Utamaro, but even more so with a rare one. 

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Ooops, Gina, I didn't see YOUR response

until today. I don't know if the image is rare _ looks like puppeteers _ but if we can connect I can email you an image.

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I'm always very happy to look at Utamaros

So I will be in touch shortly!