Excerpt from the Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice: VALUING BEAUTIES: THE BIJIN IN JAPANESE PRINTS

Fellow appraiser Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, Ph.D, ISA CAPP contributed an interesting and detailed article on the history, identificaiton and valuing of the Bijin in Japanese prints.

The article was included in the Spring edition of the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice. I have included several sections in block quotes below from Daphne's article including portions on the types of Bijin in prints as well as a portion of the section on valuation.

If you wish to read the full paper with images and citations, please visit our sponsor,  ISA Private Client Services landing page for the new Journal. Click HERE or follow the source link below to get access to view in flipbook form or to download a PDF of the new Journal.

The new Journal is getting a lot of online views and downloads. Currently the views and readership of the online edition remain strong and growing, now with nearly 1,400 views. I hope to publish a second edition this fall. Interested contributors should contact me with an article proposal. If you have an article contribution for the next edition please let me know.

In the mean  time, please enjoy VALUING BEAUTIES: THE BIJIN IN JAPANESE PRINTS by
Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, Ph.D, ISA CAPP, from the Spring Edition of the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice.
Major Ukiyo-e types of Beauties, or Bijin: 

Edo Period Japanese bijin designs feature a variety of female types, including:

a. Upper class women: princesses, and Genji-style women more generally

These elite women were well-dressed, elegant, motionless and emotionless and literate, as in the courtly lives and loves featured in the romances described in The Tale of Genji of 1053 (See below.)

b. Male actors in female roles: the onnagata role in kabuki theatre

Kabuki was the popular theatre of the Edo Period, with devoted audiences in the major cities demanding print images of their favorite actors and theatre settings. An adult-male only actor world (after a series of trials and errors with female and young boy actors), the kabuki plays contained many female roles. Male actors who specialized in onnagata or female roles were the quintessence of femininity and served as models for women in terms of appropriate appearances and demeanor. They wore elaborate makeup and either wigs or a cloth piece on their forehead to cover the government-mandated shaved crown (www.kabuki21.com). “Yakusha-e”, prints of the world of kabuki (and other theatrical forms) became a primary subject in early Ukiyo-e, along with the popular “bijin-ga” or designs with beauties [ILLUS. 2].

c. Deceitful women/hags/ghosts

        This category includes tricksters such as fox women (transformative, untrustworthy beings, often with their furry tails exposed beneath heavy robes); there are also supernatural beings such as those created by the modern artist Fuyuko Matsui, and in famous 19th century Ukiyo-e print series by Hokusai and Yoshitoshi.  Females in this category can appear ugly, haggard, aged, disheveled, and emotionally distraught.

d. Loose women/morally bad women/non-conforming to standard

      Completely lacking propriety, self restraint, with their hairdo awry, their robes slumping in slovenly fashion, their breasts partially or completely exposed, women in this general category illustrate the chain of moral descent from category a. but are not necessarily associated with the supernatural, as in category c. Utamaro’s famous series “Five Shades of Ink in the Northern Quarter” (c. 1794-5) begins with the woman illustrating the “best of” the bijin level (demure, hair and dress in place) to the lowest of the low within that category (slumped and “letting it all hang out”), and his series “A Parent’s Moralizing Spectacles” (1802-3) features “The  Hussy, also known as “The Wanton”, a disheveled girl drinking from a wine glass (Note: erotica prints are a separate issue, for another article.).

e. Mothers and children

      An unobjectionable and popular genre within the general bijin category, such prints portray the charming intimate interaction between beauties/mothers and happy children, usually within an interior space. Such print designs, as those by Utamaro, were reportedly the inspiration for some of Mary Cassatt’s prints a century or so later.  That denizens of the Floating World brothels had children as a result of their profession was an unhappy fact of life in the Green Houses.

f. “Geisha”

The literal translation of the term “geisha” is “gei” - arts/performance and “sha” – person, a professional entertainer, an “arts person”.

This category includes both men and women singer-entertainers, not prostitutes. Talented, they could come and go from their establishments to entertain clients for parties. They were not forced or allowed to fraternize too intimately with male clients.  A combination of talent and beauty was taken for granted. It is both this specific type and an expanded interpretation of this term which is explored in many bijin prints, and in this essay. 
 Daphne Continue with a section on value
Value structure of Bijin-ga:

In most particulars, the numerous considerations which enter into assigning values to Japanese Edo Period Ukiyo-e prints as a whole or to bijin prints specifically are not that different from those used to value prints of other periods and cultures, though several criteria assume more importance in bijin print valuation. Under “Frequently Asked Questions about Japanese Prints”, from the site www.viewingjapaneseprints.net, the section “What is my print worth?” is useful to summarize the points to consider; those who have taken this author’s “The Appraisal of Japanese Prints” two-day seminar presented for ISA (as well as other sources) will be familiar with the points made on this site.  Some of them are self-evident and relate to questions brought up in any print appraisal, but several require more specific attention as they relate to valuing Japanese prints and specifically prints of beauties. Briefly summarized, the “What is my print worth” headings include:

 a. artist;

b. design or subject;

c. originals and reproductions; 

d. condition;

e. rarity;

f. fashion or current trends;

g. financial markets;

h. scholarship;

i. exhibitions or publications;

j. provenance;

k. local or specialized interest;

l. venue or source;

m. “new to the market” 

Certainly all these categories can affect print valuation. Indeed,  a., b., e., h., i., j.,  k., l. and m. from this list are all applicable to prints as well as paintings from many schools and cultures and would automatically be observed and documented where possible. C and d., f.. and  g. and j. with l., demand more attention here, to point out aspects strongly affecting appraisal of Japanese prints, and more specifically bijin-ga. But first:

a. Artist:

Is the artist identified, well-known, admired? Is the signature/authorship believable?  These and other concerns are questions asked of printings and prints worldwide so the usual strictures and identifications arise (“by the artist”, “attributed to the artist”, “manner of the artist”, etc.).  If two prints are of roughly equivalent design and quality of print materials, will one identified as being by a famous artist be more valuable than one by a second or third tier artist? Yes. This is to be expected.

b. and k. Design, subject, local or specialized interest:

To state what is quite obvious, in bijin-ga, beauties have to be beautiful, as defined above. Prints of beauties, even mediocre designs, tend overall to be more popular in the Ukiyo-e marketplace than prints depicting harrowing scenes, references to historical events (with some exceptions as the famous “47 Ronin” tale), or other material that in any way is demanding or appalling - though those themes have their own collecting audience. Prints of “bad girls”, female ghosts, and bondage designs have their own collecting coteries, as do the often beautifully executed but unsigned erotic print designs by famous artists (such as Utamaro).  Beauties, bijin, the standard lovely lady engaged in appropriate activities, can be appreciated on a superficial level; apart from those who can read accompanying poetry, the expressionless but lovely bijin-ga are more a pleasant artistic topic rather than an intellectual exercise for a viewer. 

e., h., and i.  Rarity, scholarship, exhibitions or publications:

 Rarity is naturally of interest, especially if combined with moderate or ideally, superior, condition. How does one know when a design (or artist) is rare? Consult, research.  

Recent publications devoted to particular Ukiyo-e artists or prints and the general Ukiyo environment can help broaden appreciation or heretofore neglected aspects of Japanese prints. Two Japanese art society magazines, Andon and Impressions, feature scholarly articles on aspects of Japanese prints and collectors. Hotei and Brill publishers sponsor substantial books regarding prints including print series. Modern scholarship can change traditional thinking and create awareness of neglected aspects. This helps create market demand and thus affects assigned value.  


There are several other aspects which need to be heavily weighed in valuing bijin-ga and Ukiyo-e prints more generally:

f. and g.  Fashion or current trends, financial markets

A generation ago, the several fundamental periods of Edo Period Ukiyo-e were often defined as “Primitive” (i.e., early Edo), “Classic” (18th century, perhaps a touch of late 17th century, perhaps very early 19th century, in any case mid-Edo) and  “Decadent” (anything  produced early-mid-later 19th century, particularly from those artists associated with the Utagawa lineage). 

Today the term “Primitive” is considered too pejorative sand judgmental, and is rarely applied, particularly as the inherent quality of such prints is more readily recognized by today’s audience. Furthermore, popular taste has caught up with the distinctive 19th century design sensibility, and the term “Decadent” is rarely applied. Certainly the masters of the late 17th-18th century (“Classic”), with their exemplary publishers and design work, are still collectible, and in the case of Harunobu, Utamaro and Sharaku are achieving some unprecedented prices-realized at auction (depending on condition, rarity, brilliance of design, etc.).

Bijin-ga prints by some of the 19th century Utagawa School artists such as Kuniyoshi and several other “Kuni’s and Yoshi’s in the Utagawa lineage have also become very popular. Such prints have risen from the below -$100 level at auction as in the past (and well into today for such prints in terrible condition) and into the high-hundreds- lower thousands level, again depending on design, perfection of the print overall, recent respected publications and exhibitions devoted to 19th century themes and artists, and other determinants of value. There are currently collectors who specialize in tall, narrow prints of beauties (Eizan, Eisen, some Toyokuni), and others who are drawn to beauties executed as “azuri-e”, the blue-toned prints popularized in the 18920’s and 1830’s [See ILLUS. 4-5]. For whatever reason, including wide availability and shifts in tastes, 19th century bijin-ga now have a much stronger market presence than before.

Another “financial” (g.) note is that there are an increasing number of Japanese buyers for Japanese prints.  After the bloom of popularity with the Japanese lower-middle classes of collectors in the Edo, and with the advent of the distinction between “fine arts” 3
.and other,“lesser”, arts as introduced into Japan by Western art historians in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Japanese audience for Ukiyo-e fell off, the decline linked as well to the lack of relevance of traditional Ukiyo-e subject matter in the frantically modernizing world of the Meiji period (later 19th century government patronage of prints is a major topic, discussed elsewhere). During the Meiji and to an extent continuing into the 20th century, Japanese art history was taught in the Japanese universities and art schools by splitting “high art” (worthy of study) from “low art” (including prints) described as  being popular taste, commercially motivated and not worthy of consideration as “art”. The Japanese print audience was replaced by avid Western buyers, particularly Dutch, Americans, Germans and French, who were less bound by the societal prejudices and cultural constraints of the Japanese milieu and eager for a fresh aesthetic approach to engaging contemporary life into artistic statements, hence the Japonisme movement of late 19th-early 20th century Europe and America. The vision of Japan was fifty years out of date, but the romance of that vision lingered. 

The foreign appreciation for Japanese prints is particularly evident to those of us engaged in appraising collections of Japanese prints in American or Canadian family estates. If that family member was a member of the Allied military forces stationed in Japan during the Occupation Period, he or she had a golden opportunity to buy prints not only from the PXs but from dealers and private individuals. 

It was noted above that 19th century bijin and actor prints are now being broadly collected, the sting of “decadence” having been eradicated to a large degree. So too, a change in patronage has occurred in recent years. While foreign collectors are still avid to acquire prints from Edo and modern periods in a variety of genre, now Japanese collectors, to some degree, have had a broadening of taste and have come back in the market, making serious purchases and building collections of Ukiyo-e works. With the development of the world-wide web marketplace, access to prints is easier than ever, and more nationalities and differing collector levels are active.

 Ukiyo-e prints in general were in the doldrums for several decades, and in fact Japanese art overall fell behind Chinese art overall in terms of market desirability (with, notably, Sotheby’s ceasing to hold its Japanese works of art auctions for the last several decades). Japanese art is staggering back to some degree now, with Japanese prints on its leading edge of resurgent popularity, although it is still the “big names” and “big designs” which dominant this trend. 

c. Originals and reproductions: 

Original and reproduction issues are omnipresent critical factors in appraising Japanese prints. In this brief essay, there is little room to offer anything beyond cautions.  As with Edo Period prints in general, bijin prints are not editioned in the manner of modern and contemporary Japanese prints, or as is typical with later Western prints. There is no edition number, or pull number within that edition (24/100, for example) and the suggested number of print designs in a series may be totally apocryphal (A good example being, or course, the “Thirty-six Views of Fuji” series by Hokusai which has forty-six total designs.). Because the edition sizes are typically unknown, and because artists often produced thousands of designs which were transformed into prints, appraisers need to rely on not only a basic knowledge of the ascribed artist, the period, and other forms of information, particularly condition, to arrive at an appropriate valuation. To illustrate the magnitude of this problem,, it has been noted that Harunobu alone is said to have created over 1,200 single sheet designs for prints (4)!  And Uhlenbeck states that “An estimate of the total number of impressions of any print type between 1765 and 1940 results in the astounding figure of over 300 million.” (5).

It goes without saying that originals generally will be valued higher than reproductions, (always given the caveat of condition), and early editions of a print more prized than later, but what is surprising is that some reproductions and editions far removed from the original (Meiji editions, Adachi, Watanabe) actually have a rising value. Many dealer sites now list reproductions in separate sections of their website. Reproductions can be deceptive if the work is viewed only framed, matted and glazed. If the design looks vaguely familiar just from a general knowledge of the field, it could well be a reproduction since it is those desirable designs which are most often reproduced; Utamaro’s bare-breasted beauties, Sharaku’s actors including those in onnagata roles, slightly naughty bathhouse scenes with women and children in stages of undress, and notoriously Hokusai’s “Great Wave” are some of the more familiar.  www.ronin.com, www.mita.com and other galleries often list reproductions separately, and auction houses such as www.skinner.com often group a number of reproductions together as one lot). See www.Skinner.com, sale 3008T, lot 1408, “Boxed Set of Six Reproduced Ukiyo-e Prints”, est. $20-200, unsold.  Reproductions used to be valued in the $35-50 range but now the finer ones with popular designs often sell in the $150 and up range, with some Sharaku and Utamaro in the high $300’s (See https://www.adachi-hanga.com for range of values from ¥ 13,000 to  ¥ 65,000; also http://www.hangasw.com for S. Watanabe Color Print Company.).

On top of that, as explained in my textbook Guide to Japanese Print Appraisals*, there are those print designs initially published, those from the same blocks which could follow shortly, those which are printed even fifty or more years on, those printed after the death of the artist, those printed into the twentieth century though original published during the Edo era, all originals by definition, though they may be a long way on from the first ones; there are newly-cut blocks; there are re-cut blocks; there are variants/impressions/states; there might have been several publishers using the same blocks, having bought them from a previous publisher. Editioning is one of the most problematic areas in Japanese print appraisals, and since so many people, collectors or no, like beauties as a genre, bijin prints are often printed in numerous editions and appear in reproductions. Some of the clues are the nose, so fragile, and the hairline, so susceptible to broken lines. If the micaceous background on a Sharaku-ascribed work is intact and gleaming, if a Harunobu or Utamaro beauty is far too fresh and colorful overall, with paper intact, it could well be a reproduction. Given all other factors (see condition, below) a beauty by an acknowledged master of this genre, produced in the original edition or very close to it, with few marring condition problems, could well be reckoned in the thousands in prices-realized at auction. Indeed, just recently some really special bijin-ga have risen to the almost half-million price-realized level, so caution is certainly needed. 

As well as reading as much as possible, consulting the valuable website http://ukiyo-e.org (which collates specific print designs from multiple sources), reputable print dealer websites, looking at general websites such as Pinterest to see if a certain print by a certain artist is reproduced (over and over), auction catalogues from reputable auction houses can provide useful eye training. Of course, the best training an appraiser can have is to visit reputable dealers  and pre-auction viewing opportunities to look at bijin prints (both originals and reproductions) to note differences in linear and color plays and the quality of the paper as well. This is self-evident.  Furthermore, there is a distinction between “higher priced first editions, characterized by the use of beautiful paper, sumptuous colorants and elaborate printing techniques, and ordinary printings for standard quality prints” which an in-person handling reveals (6).
Source: The Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice 

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