The Million-Dollar Question: Original or Reproduction?

A recent article in the New York Times (“Is It a ‘5’ or a ‘6’? The Answer Could Make an Art Fortune”) explores whether a certain bronze sculpture is an extremely valuable Renaissance original or just a 17th century copy—a distinction worth a million dollars. Among the disputed crucial details is whether a date cast on the sculpture’s base shows the number “5” or “6.”

While the stakes aren’t nearly as high, the article brings to mind a common question for historic print collectors:

“Is it an original or a reproduction?”

At AHPCS, we often receive this question for Currier & Ives prints—both because certain Currier & Ives originals are highly valued and, also, because there are a number of reproductions out there. Mind you, most of these reproductions are not the result of forgers trying to swindle unsuspecting buyers—the repros exist because Currier & Ives prints are so loved, and as a result, companies have wanted to capitalize on the demand (especially in the mid-1900s).

Among the most convincingly accurate reproductions are a series published by Andres, Inc., of New York in 1942. Andres selected twenty images from among the large-folio stars of the Currier & Ives lineup and reproduced them expertly to the exact size. It even went so far as to hand-color the prints as Currier & Ives had originally done.

Included in the series is the lush and ornate Landscape, Fruit and Flowers created by artist Fanny Palmer for Currier & Ives in 1862.

Below are four copies of the print—three originals and one reproduction:

The color variations immediately stand out in the images—but not just for the reproduction. The colors differ among all four prints and reflect the inherent uniqueness of hand-coloring and the effects of sun exposure and other environmental factors over time.

Which one is the Andres reproduction? Spoiler alert! It’s the second print from top (or from left in the first panel).

So how should beginners go about determining if a print is an original?

In most cases, a Currier & Ives reproduction can be identified by measuring the image dimensions and comparing them to the size provided in a standard reference book like Frederic Conningham’s Currier & Ives Prints. An Illustrated Check List (Crown Publishers, 1970, 1983). Over at the Antiques Prints Blog, AHPCS member and dealer Chris Lane goes into excellent detail on “Currier & Ives Sizes.”

If the print passes the measurement test, other clues can be revealed by looking at the printed text below the image, studying the paper quality, and using a strong magnifying glass to examine the ink pattern. To help navigate the question of authenticity, our website features a Currier & Ives Frequently Asked Questions page with tips.

In comparing the repro Landscape, Fruit and Flowers from an original, one longtime collector suggests looking at the letters in the title of the print.

The basic printing of the black-and-white lithographed image loses detail and clarity when copied. This loss is less visible in the colored illustration portion of the print but is more obvious in the block letters of the title. The original letters appear more distinct than the reproduction:

Unfortunately for the beginner, though, there is no substitute for old-fashioned hard-earned experience when evaluating prints. In 1977, collector Jacques Schurre wrote to AHPCS founder Ladd MacMillan:

“When it comes to prints that are reproduced in the exact size and printed matter as the original, and there are many of these, explaining how one can distinguish a repro from an original is of dubious value. That knowledge comes from owning and handling original impressions” (AHPCS News Letter, Fall 1996, Vol. 21, No. 2).

Image credits (left to right/top to bottom): The first two images courtesy of a private collector; the third image is courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the fourth image is courtesy of the Old Print Shop.