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What's good or not in antique prints.

Being a print fanatic, I am always on the lookout for interesting prints, be they woodblocks, intaglio or lithographs. Over the years, I have learned how to minimize the risk of buying a framed print that is in bad to horrible condition. It is so easy to fall prey to the rare beauty hanging in some antique shop only to find, when back in the studio, that it has been mounted to an acidic board. I now look at that wonderful print on a shop's wall and think "How sad that someone didn't care for it properly". With some knowledge and a detective's mentality, one can still go on the hunt to find these wonderful treasures. There is a great joy in returning with a trophy.

A simple Check List for print condition.

The first rule when buying a print is condition, condition, condition.


The frame is there to protect and present the artwork. Not every framer pays attention to the protect the artwork part of framing.

  • UV Filtering Glass is a bonus and is hard to tell if the glass does have a UV coating while in the frame.

  • Having the glass away from artwork is an important issue.

  • Plexi-glass should not be used on pastels.

  • Cotton rag matting and backing usually means it has been reframed in the last 10 years which is a good sign. Cotton rag matting will have a white core.

  • If the mat bevel is brown, it means that the mat has a wood pulp core which is acidic.

  • Frame Labels can tell a lot about the framing. See below.

  • The hanging system, often, can be quite creative though not the safest for the artwork.

Condition of Art:

Usually, the condition of the art is obvious, but there are times when one has to become a detective and use the condition of all the parts to guess the artwork condition.

  • Margins intact, print is not trimmed.

  • Determine if the art has been mounted.

  • Mat burns will appear as brown stains around the edge of a wood pulp mat.

  • Has fading affected the print or was a light stable ink used?

  • Is the print on a quality paper?

Print Process: This is a matter of training one's eye to identify the various print processes and how they were used.

  • Identify the print process.

  • Is the print a good example of the process.

  • Competent printing technique.

Identifying Problems

"Mat or Light Burns"


  • Acidic burns to the print paper at the mat edge are due to the decomposition of a wood pulp mat.

  • Look for brown core matting which indicates the mat is a wood pulp mat.


  •  Remove all wood pulp paper boards from artwork and replace with cotton rag matting.

  • Use UV filtering glass when framing.

  •  Treatment by a professional paper conservator can remove much of the burns.



  •  Brown spots are usually caused by mold or mildew.

  • "Foxing" usually appears when moisture has developed in the frame environment.

  • Waves in the paper are a good indication of moisture exposure.

  •  Occasionally, foxing will appear from minute metal fragments in the paper pulp that have rusted.


  •  Low Humidity.

  • Cotton rag mat and backing.

  • Treatment by professional Paper Conservator only.

“Mounted Artwork”


  • Paper is not always flat as paper fibers absorb atmospheric moisture, changing the tension between the paper fibers causing waves in the paper.

  • An antique framed print with no waves between the paper and mat may mean the art has been laid down or glued to the matting. Paper that has waves is a good sign that it is not mounted but it may have received some moisture damage (look for foxing).

  • Determine if the paper has been wet, dry or spray mounted.

  • Tape with an active residue should not be used as the glue transfers into the paper. (See photo below)

  • Masking tape residue cannot be completely removed.

  • Treatment by professional paper conservator only.

  •  Look for Framer Labels as some frame shops consistently have used inappropriate framing and mounting techniques. Conversely, some Framer Labels suggest the art has been properly treated.

“Water Stains ”


  • Condensation build up or direct introduction of a liquid may stain the paper.

  • Never spray glass cleaner directly onto the glass as the liquid can easily seep behind the glass and stain the mat. Moisten the cleaning rag and then clean the glass.

  • Allow at least a week before hanging artwork on newly painted walls.


  •  Cotton matting and backing.

  •  Treatment by professional paper conservator

  •  This Lyman Byxbe print (left) had pronounced water stains. Proper treatment minimized the stains to an acceptable level.

“Backing Burns ”


  • Cardboard or wood slat backing ( see photo above) will permanently stain the art when in direct contact with the paper print. In the photo above, the burns appear at the top and were from the wood slats holding the print into the frame.

  • When exposed to wood pulp boards, paper becomes brittle, and will crack as opposed to tearing.


  • Replace all wood pulp boards with cotton rag matting and backing.

  • De-acidification by a professional paper conservator.

Trimmed Margins”


  • The artwork should have full margins or, at least, not trimmed to the image's edge.

  •  If an artwork is matted into the image, determine if the mat covers damage or a trimmed margin. This will require opening up the frame package to see how the art has been treated. Not all shop owners are receptive to this.

  •  Value will decrease significantly if the margins have been trimmed.

  • The etching above was trimmed up to the plate mark. The etching is still a wonderful print but it's value has been diminished.

  • On the Japanese Ukiyo-e print dating from c1850, the value has been diminished considerably as the signature and censor seals have been trimmed along with the margin. The signatures and censor seals are critical on Japanese prints for identification and valuation.

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