Determining Print Condition

By Terry Wright

Besides the print edition (e.g., Havell versus Amsterdam) and image identity (e.g., Turkey, plate #1 versus Cedar Bird, plate #43), print condition is one of the key determinants of a print’s value. And yet, print condition is somewhat subjective in nature. Prints are often referred to as being in Mint, Excellent, Fine,Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor condition, but these terms are not precise. For example, how much buckling, smudging or creasing can a print have before it goes from Very Good to just Good? Is a print with a small crease or closed tear at the margins still Excellent? And, what do any of these terms infer about valuation? In the simplest terms, a print with no discernable defects will command the highest price, while the valuation of a print will steadily, sometimes drastically, decline with the severity, type and number of defects present. Unfortunately, the consideration of print value is most important at the time of a sale. In a sales situation, the seller has an interest in presenting the print in it’s best light, while the buyer has a need to be aware of any issues which may detract from the print’s value. It is also helpful to be aware of the general types of defects and their causes in order to protect the value of one’s collection, avoiding mistakes which may damage valuable works of art. This article reviews the major types of defects commonly found on vintage prints.

I classify defects into two broad categories, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic print defects are introduced after the print is made and may be classified as to their origins. For purposes of this discussion, I have classed them into four groups: Handling Damage, Environmental Damage, Aging and Alterations . Handling damage includes creasing, soiling, and tears. Environmental Damage includes cockling, embrittlement, foxing, matt burns, mold or mildew, stains, tide marks, offset transfers, fading and toning. Aging defects include acidification and oxidation. The final category, Alterations, includes any modification of the print from its original form, such as from trimming. There are also intrinsic print defects, that is, those defects introduced or present at the time of print manufacture. This article discusses only extrinsic defects.

The first group of extrinsic defects, Handling Damage, is usually the result of carelessness or accident. Soiling of a print can occur when it is handled with dirty ungloved hands or placed on an unclean surface. This detracts from the appearance of the print, such as when finger smudges are present. These defects are typically found at the edge or in the margins of prints, since that is where they are handled most frequently. Any soiling defect in the image area is more detrimental than one in the margins (since these can be covered by normal matting). Improper storage or packaging for shipment may also result in creases, or folding marks, which can range in severity from the small almost invisible mark at the edge of a print to severe folds transversing the entire image. Severe creases can lead to open or closed tears. Tears are also often caused by careless handling or page turning of prints. They may be open or closed in nature. A closed tear stops at one or both ends, somewhere within the sheet and may or may not affect the printed image. An open tear results in a detached piece of material from the sheet. All of these defects detract from the appearance of the unmatted print and therefore may have adverse impact on valuation. Fortunately, many of these defects can be removed or repaired. This class of defects can be avoided in your own prints by using gloves when handling prints, and by taking extra care in handling and packing prints for storage or transfer.

Environmental Damage is a broad category of defects from numerous sources. These defects are the result of a print coming in contact with contaminants (e.g., stain) or external forces (e.g. sunlight) which contaminate or modify the print in some way. Excessive heat and humidity are two major causes of defects commonly seen on prints. Cockling is a defect which looks like a puckering or rippled appearance usually along the outside edges of a print. It results from non-uniform shrinking or drying. Thus, it is a humidity-related defect. Embrittlement, or a weakening of the paper (sometimes to the point of breaking), may occur as the result of numerous types of exposure. Sunlight, low humidity or excessive heat may all cause embrittlement. Another form of embrittlement is caused by exposure to acids. These may be introduced through soiled hands, poor quality matting and mounting materials, wooden frames, airborne pollutants, or the paper itself may contain some amount of acids (Bien Edition prints suffer from this problem. See aging defects, below) Mat burn is a defect which results from the use of poor quality matting materials. Acid-containing mats will leave a mark or discoloration in the area of the print covered by the mat. This is not usually observable until the mat is removed for inspection. The introduction of various adhesives or tapes may also contaminate and mark a print. Stains are obvious defects resulting, usually, from carelessness or accident. They can result from inadvertent marking by any number of materials, including water and other liquids. One form of stain is called a ‘tide mark’ because it resembles the ‘high tide line’ on the beach and remains after a print has been subjected to high humidity in some manner and subsequently dried. Buckling (i.e., cockling) may accompany this type of defect. Mold or mildew spots may also be the result of exposure to high levels of humidity. Molds may be off-white, greenish or brown-black, fuzzy or furry in appearance. Foxing refers to the appearance of small brown spots (fox-colored, hence the name), the result of fungal interaction with iron or other impurities in the paper. High humidity may also play a role in the appearance of foxing. Oxidation is similar to foxing and may result from extended exposure to high humidity. In this case, traces of iron present in the paper (or on it) react with atmospheric oxygen essentially causing minute rust spots to appear on the print. Offset transfer refers to the transfer of ink from the obverse surface of one print or page to a surface on a second page in direct contact with the first. . This may happen in situations where prints are in a bound volume, subjected to undue pressures or when pages are stacked before the ink is dried fully, or when stored improperly during manufacture. Fading is a loss of vibrance in the image’s coloration due to the interaction with solar radiation (e.g. ultraviolet radiation from sunlight) over time. Fading may be accompanied by yellowing, where the paper darkens or ‘yellows’ in unpainted/printed regions of the paper exposed to sunlight. Toning is the darkening of a print due to the accumulation of contaminants (including airborne acids) on the surface and their interaction with the print and/or paper. Again, as with handling damage, most of these defects can be corrected by a skilled conservationist, albeit at some expense. To avoid introducing this type of defect to prints, it is important to exercise good judgment and care in their handling, storage, framing and placement. Simple precautions include eliminating food and liquids in print handling areas, wearing gloves when handling prints, avoiding unnecessary handling, using only quality archival matting and framing materials and methods (including acid-free mounting and matting materials, barrier tapes and conservation quality glass), and storing prints in protective sleeves well away from areas of high humidity and/or heat sources. Displayed prints should not be left in areas subject to high humidity, direct sunlight, or temperature extremes. For those not experienced in archival framing, the services of a qualified framer with archival experience is essential.

Aging defects are similar to environmental defects but distinct in one respect. They are primarily a result of natural aging processes and not the direct interaction with external contaminants or influences (such as high humidity or sunlight). Thus, one could argue that oxidation fits in here better than in environmental defects, especially if the iron content of the paper were relatively high. Oxidation can/does take place over an extended period, even at modest humidity levels, if the iron content of the paper or its surface, is high. Similarly, prints made with wood pulp containing papers contain acids which naturally decompose the paper over time. In this case, the breakdown process is a natural aging process more than an exposure to external contaminants, or accidents. The distinction is relatively unimportant except that it is difficult to prevent natural aging relative to environmental damage. Simple avoidance or preventive measures are sufficient to prevent environmental damage. Aging defects must be proactively addressed with restoration and conservation techniques. Aging processes processes may also be mitigated or partially reversed if left to a qualified conservator.

The final category of defects I refer to as alterations. They include any modification to the original print. The most common modification is trimming of the sheet or print in some way. Bound sheets may be unbound and the binding edge removed for framing. Large sheets, especially those with smaller images, may have margins trimmed to facilitate framing in a size closer to the image size. This particular modification is especially prevalent in Audubon double elephant folio prints, where the image may be 12-50% of the sheet size, the remainder comprising margin space. (Audubon DEF prints were typically bound and therefore not intended for framing.) One especially damaging modification is the trimming of a print resulting in the removal of its watermark(s). Surprisingly, this is very common. Bien edition prints were printed, in some cases, two to a sheet and it is common to see these separated and sold individually. An open tear could also be classified as a modification. All these modifications negatively effect valuation. Specific knowledge about sheet and print image sizes, authenticating watermarks, plate marks and etc. are good hedges against buying a print with modification defects impacting a print’s value.

The second major category of defects I refer to as intrinsic defects and result from errors or variations introduced during the making of the original print. These could be ink splatters or transfers, or other anomalous application. The paper, especially handmade papers, may contain inclusions or be variable in thickness globally or locally, or vary slightly in coloration. Registration errors are those resulting from a crooked or translated alignment of the printed image. These errors are beyond the scope of this article and the services of a qualified antiquarian should be consulted in order to assess the impact of such defects.

Because of the many types of potential defects in vintage prints, it is a good idea to get a written ‘condition report’ for any precious or semi-precious print considered for purchase. Prints considered sight-unseen (from an auction, a dealer or gallery, or elsewhere) should definitely have a condition report available for inspection before the sale. The exception would be incidental or low-value purchases or in cases where there was a long-standing relationship and trust between the buyer and seller. Again, any single-word description of a print’s condition is subjective and inadequate. Relying on terms like ‘excellent condition’ do not convey enough information to make an informed judgement about a prints condition, potential defects, or valuation. Similarly, it is very difficult to photograph an image adequately in order to clearly show a defect and even more difficult to photograph one to ensure the absence of any. Of course, the best case would be to obtain a written appraisal of a print from a qualified third party before a purchase or while a print was on-approval. Barring these options, even a relative novice may take some stock of a print’s condition upon personal inspection, although assigning a valuation will be difficult. Attached to this article is a simple check-list the amateur collector may find useful for recording notes while inspecting a print being evaluated for purchase.

© February 2005 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



Print Condition Checklist

Print Identification:

Name/Plate #: __________________________________________________

Edition: __________________________________________________

Sheet Size: __________________________________________________

Image Size: __________________________________________________

Date Inspected: __________________________________________________

Inspected by: __________________________________________________

Handling Damage

  • Creases: ______________________________________________
  • Tears _______________________________________________
  • Soiling ______________________________________________

Environmental Damage

  • Foxing: _______________________________________________
  • Mold/Mildew: _______________________________________________
  • Brittle: _______________________________________________
  • Stains: _______________________________________________
  • Tide Marks: _______________________________________________
  • Tape Marks: _______________________________________________
  • Mat Burn: _______________________________________________
  • Transfers: _______________________________________________
  • Fading: _______________________________________________
  • Toning: _______________________________________________


  • Acidification: _______________________________________________
  • Oxidation: _______________________________________________

Print Modification

  • Trimming: _______________________________________________
  • Open Tear: _______________________________________________
  • Other: _______________________________________________

Other Notes: ___________________________________________________