Shotei Gallery - Sales Gallery

Condition Ratings

Over the years, I have dealt with many print vendors in various venues, buying prints for my own collection. In preparing to launch my sales gallery, I revisited these dealers in search of a standardized and forthright methodology for evaluating the condition of prints for sale. I was disappointed to find very little uniformity, along with a lack of linguistic integrity. In the common usage, "good" means "bad", while "fair" means "dreadful".

Therefore, I have committed Shotei Gallery to providing a transparent rating system, with 3 parts. The first part is a numeric summarizaton of condition issues ranging from 0.0 to 5.0 in increments of .5. A visual representation of this rating (pointing fingers) is shown, next to the price, for each item on the "Items for Sale" page. The second part is a written description of the condition defects which went into assigning the numeric rating. The third part, for some prints where it is helpful, is a high resolution image of any damage.

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Any system which attempts to summarize different facts to arrive at a numeric value will necessarily be subjective. Of course, it is desireable to strive for an objective standard, and that's what I intend to do. With that in mind, here are the policies in place to make the evaluations as internally consistent as possible:
Rating Picture Explanation
0.0 A zero rating means that a print has been damaged to the point that it has no value. This is just "theoretical". Any print in that bad condition won't be offered for sale.
0.5 A basket case.
1.0 You can expose this print to light by displaying it and still have a clear conscience. This is not a collectible print.
1.5 Not quite collectible. Somewhere between 1.0 and 2.0. Most dealers call this "Fair".
2.0 A rating of 2 is the cutoff point between a print which is either "collectible" or for decorative purposes only. This one is ambiguous. I will leave it to the potential buyer to determine which way to think about prints rated 2.0.
2.5 There are some serious flaws, but this print is still collectible. Most dealers call this "Good".
3.0 Some minor flaws.
3.5 This is for average collectible prints. Most dealers call this "Very Good".
4.0 Excellent condition.
4.5 Just 1 minor flaw away from pristine.
5.0 Pristine. This print is in the same condition as when it left the publisher's premises.

Factors to Consider

To assign a rating, there are many factors to consider, including...

Original impression:


Prints are produced from multiple woodblocks. If the paper is not in exactly the proper place for receiving the pigment from each block, the colored areas may not line up correctly, either overlapping or leaving the white paper color showing through. Bad registration can be the result of printer error or of blocks becoming cracked or distorted.

Block damage:

Fine lines on prints come from carved "ridges" on the blocks. There is an immense amount of pressure used in the printing process. If the printer is too enthusiastic in exerting the pressure, or if the blocks aren't allowed to "rest" for a time between print production runs, the ridges can be damaged and fine lines become discontinuous. A common place to see this kind of damage is in the outside border of prints. Print collectors can tell an earlier edition from a later one by comparing the integrity of the fine lines.

Paper quality:

The washi or hosho paper used for print production was hand-made from mulberry bark fibers. It was an expensive raw material for the publisher to purchase. Thicker paper was more expensive than thinner paper. For collectors, paper done on thicker paper is more desirable. Some collectors think that thick paper was used for early editions with later editions getting done on thinner paper.


Prints which have been displayed, and therefore exposed to light, have all experienced some degree of fading. For that reason, conscientious collectors keep their prints safe in an archival environment, away from the light. I wrote an article about color stability which goes into some detail about this phenomena. Prints with the original coloration intact are worth more money than prints which have experienced fading.

Damage from previous mounting or storage:

Laying down:

Sometimes we find prints which have been attached to a backing, either by gluing or by a process called dry-mounting. Often the backing is acidic and the print has becomed toned and brittle. If you can't see the reverse side of the print because it's laid down, that print is worth considerably less money.


Prints were usually (but not always) produced with margins of unprinted paper around the printed image. Sometimes there was printed writing in the margins, sometimes not.

Today, we see some prints where the margins were trimmed off, up to the image, or even into the image.

It takes a trained eye and knowledge about the practices of the individual publishers to be able to determine whether a print has been butchered or whether it came from the publisher like that. The damaged ones are worth less to collectors.


Exposure to an acidic environment causes the print paper to get darker and the paper fibers to become brittle. The importance of using archival mounting and storage materials has become known only relatively recently. Therefore, many prints have some degree of toning. In the worst cases, the paper is brown and so brittle that even gently folding it will cause it to break along the fold line.


Matburn is a special case of toning. It happens when a print is mounted for display with a window cut out of an acidic matboard overlaying the print. The exposed acidic core of the matboard leaves a brownish line of toning on the print right at the edge of the window.


Foxing damage is from fungal growth on the paper. It usually presents as small dark spots, often in clusters. Collectors shun prints with foxing because the fungal damage is contagious and can spread to other prints. Foxed prints aren't worth much in the marketplace.

Worm holes

This isn't usually a problem for shin hanga prints. It's more often found in ukiyo-e. Insects (not worms) can find their way into the pages of a book or a stack of prints. They eat the nutritious paper fibers leaving long thin trails of missing paper that look like worms.

Damage from mistreatment and wear:

Holes, tears, rubbing, and creasing:

When people don't treat their prints carefully, with respect for what they are, there is no end to the damage that can be done. A print damaged by mistreatment is, of course, worth less than one which has been lovingly preserved over the years.

Water stains

If a print gets wet, the water will cause dirt and/or pigment to migrate to the edge of the moist area. Once the water has evaporated, there will be a stain along the edge of the previous wet spot. It's not pretty.

Thin areas

There are multiple techniques for safely removing a print from its backing, but they require time and care. I've observed knowledgable collectors (who should know better) running a knife blade between a print and its backing, hacking through the glue points. It's easy to inadvertently remove some of the paper thickness using this kind of a technique, causing what is known as a "thin". You can see thins easily by placing your print on a light table. A lot more light will come through the thin places, usually seen in the upper corners.


I've seen prints with writing in the margins. I've also seen what are called "collector seals" stamped within the image. I don't understand why anyone would do that, and can't help but classifying such markings as detriments to the price of a print.

Previous restorations:

The restoration of a damaged print, if well done, can enhance the value of that print, however, it will always be worth less than a comparable, undamaged print.

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