The Open Edition

One of the most startling differences between Western print value systems and Ukiyo-e print value is the open edition. While Western prints are limited to a set number of runs before the blocks are struck (damaged or destroyed) to prevent extra prints being created outside the edition, Mokuhanga prints are traditionally printed as an open edition – an unnumbered amount of prints. This meant that in Hokusai’s era a print could cost the same as a bowl of noodles. Ukiyo-e was an artform for the average person to enjoy, hence the tradition to depict kabuki actors or titillating bathhouse scenes.

In the twentieth century, with the renewed interest in Ukiyo-e prints from Western collectors, Mokuhanga print houses would carve and publish new prints based on popular old designs (sometimes even printing off the original cherry blocks carved in the 1800s). This practice is continued even today by contemporary print houses in Kyoto that model themselves on the division of labour traditional to Ukiyo-e printmaking – a carver who carves the blocks and a printer who publishes the prints.

So how can one ascribe value to a Mokuhanga print? While some contemporary Mokuhanga printmakers have adopted the Western editioning system that creates market value through limited availability, traditional Mokuhanga print collectors rely on more subtle markers. These include: the quality of the paper, the quality of the print publishing and the fame of the publishing house, the date the print was created and the evidence of paper yellowing or pigment colour shifts that mark a print’s age.

So a Hokusai reproduction created in the 1920s that was printed on paper made by a renown craftsman, in a respected print studio will acrue great value over time even if it wasn’t printed by the original studio that Hokusai used.

As a collector, the things to look for when buying a Mokuhanga print are quality and age. A good place to start is to buy from a respected print house.