Unloved Antiques: Mass-Produced Decorator Prints
“Cupid Awake” by photographer Morris Burke Parkinson. This print was produced from 1897 through to the 1920s, if not later, and distributed by the Taber Prang Art Company of Springfield, Mass., and often sells for less than $50 in a good frame.
The third item in this series of “Unloved Antiques” (read the first two installments here and here) is the Decorator Print, like this one titled “Cupid Awake” by photographer Morris Burke Parkinson. This print was produced from 1897 through to the 1920s, if not later, and distributed by the Taber Prang Art Company of Springfield, Mass., and often sells for less than $50 in a good frame.
Such old prints are often the fodder for “Lost Treasures” stories one often finds in the media, such as “Old Print Found at Curb Worth Thousands!” or “$5 Yard-Sale Art Find Turns Into $80,000 Winner” headlines. While this does sometimes happen, the odds of it happening to you or me are right up there with winning the lottery; something like at 14 million to one. Even at these odds, we all still keep an eye out for that neglected Picasso in the dumpster, the Raoul Dufy watercolor in an outhouse at a country auction and the perennial favorite, rare Currier and Ives prints, like “Home to Thanksgiving,” in a box lot of old sealers.
The fact is that these finds are generally low-cost copies of the works of a famous artists, made from the turn of the 19th century through the 1940s and sold in Five & Dime stores. Some, particularly the Currier and Ives variety, were formerly a page from an insurance company or feed store calendar Grandma thought too pretty to throw out and framed it. So, apart from stories in the media of great finds, why are these prints believed to be so valuable? Like many unloved antiques it’s all about perception and the aura of mystery. Unlike a great many antique items such as china, figurines, furniture and lamps that are identifiable by well-documented markings, the markings on prints are often deemed the realm of the art expert’ to decipher, and the general public the perception often is that if an Expert is Needed = Big Value. While experts do have their place, and should be consulted if there is any doubt at all, there’s much you can do on your own to determine what you are looking at.
There are whole books devoted to identifying prints, their editions, biographies of the artist and the publishers involved, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in such information to pick them up. But there is one simple trick you can use that eliminates much study of those dusty volumes and requires only the use of a dollar-store magnifying glass and remembering one small word: “Dots.”
Copies of original prints are images made up of thousands of tiny colored dots. You can usually spot these dots with a cheap magnifying glass.
Mass-produced 20th-century prints are produced much in the same way newspapers put photographs into print: with an image made up of thousands of tiny colored dots (as can be seen in the blown up image above). If you look closely at a picture in a newspaper, the entire image is made up of a series of tiny dots, looking almost like a honey comb. The vast majority of original prints are various forms of etchings, engraving or lithographs, all of which have their own unique markings, and require some training and practice to identify, but one thing they won’t exhibit is the all-over honey comb of dots found on a mass-produced print.
Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.
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