I'm often asked if I can explain how to tell the difference between an original Utamaro print and a restrike or reprint, or the difference between a work by Utamaro I and one by Utamaro II. Sadly, I'm often expected to provide an ultra-condensed summary of years of research that allows the knowledge to be passed on in a five-minute conversation or a short email. Well, there is no simple formula that can be passed on from me to anyone else in the space of a few sentences that will provide a fool-proof method for discerning an Utamaro I from an Utamaro II, or an original print from a later restrike or reprint. Getting a feel for Utamaro's prints is much the same as getting a feel for any other artist's work; it takes time, effort, study and a lot of exposure to original works. There is no shortcut.
If your purpose in asking the question is that you're looking to have a print identified or valued at speed, and your interest doesn't go beyond that, then you need to find an expert to do the job for you. A museum with a specialist in Japanese prints may provide information regarding the artist and date of your print, but not its value. An auction house may provide a value, but little beyond that. Or you could find an independent specialist (*please see note below) who can provide you with the information you seek (for a fee, of course - knowledge is a precious commodity, after all, and independents don't have their wages paid by museums or auction houses).
However, if you're serious about studying Utamaro's prints, or any other ukiyo-e artist's works, whether for the purpose of differentiating between originals and reprints or otherwise, and you are willing to put in the time and effort, then you need to get yourself in front of the originals as often as possible. Reading books about the subject will (hopefully) give you an understanding of the subject matter you'll encounter in the prints, the method used to produce them, and so on, but it will only take you so far. Whilst printing techniques have come along in leaps and bounds during the last fifty years, it's simply not possible within the pages of a reference book to produce a perfectly accurate representation of an antique print. It's also not possible to give any idea of the feel of the paper of an original print.
There are a number of museums around the world that house Japanese print collections: The British Museum and Victorian & Albert Museum in London, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet in Paris, Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels - the list goes on. If you live in a major city, there's most likely a museum that has at least a few prints. These won't necessarily be on display, however, so you'll probably have to make an appointment to see them in one of the museum's study rooms. And it's not just the major museums located in capital cities that have collections. Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery have both had to put up with me mooching about amongst their prints. 'Phone your local museums and find out if they have a collection; even a few prints by artists you're not all that fond of are worth looking at, for the experience.
In addition to exploring the collections of museums, you could take a look at what's being offered for sale by the auction houses. The major houses have sales of Asian art and you can go along to a pre-sale viewing and look at the prints. Admittedly, there are very few Utamaro's turning up at auction these days, but there are still occasionally gems that pop up. For example, Utamaro's most well-known erotic album, Poem of the Pillow (Uta-makura), of 1788, went under the hammer just a few days back, on March 24th, at Christie's in New York (it sold for $338,500, including the buyer's premium, which more than doubled its estimate).
There's no reason to be self-conscious when visiting an auction room, even if the print you're examining is worth tens of thousands of pounds, or, as in the case of Utamaro's Reflective Love (Mono omou koi), from the series Love Themes from Classical Poetry (Kasen koi no bu), that went under the hammer at Christie's in 2008, thought to be worth closer to $1.5 million. Viewings are always teeming with browsers and the fact that you don't intend to buy shouldn't deter you from having a look around.
And last, but by no means least, there are exhibitions, of course. It's worth travelling for the good ones, even if they're outside your country, if you have the time and money. And on the subject of exhibitions, if you happen to be in Birmingham (UK) between 22nd September and 14th November this year, there's an exhibition of Utamaro's prints on at the Ikon Gallery (tel: +44 (0) 121 248 0708).
*Note: I am an independent specialist, but I do not offer this type of service; my workload precludes me from doing so.
I receive a lot (understatement of the year!) of emails asking me to value/identify prints or help with theses, etc., for free. I am an incredibly busy person, like most other people these days, and I don't have the time to respond to these emails. So, I offer the contents of my web site and blog for free... nothing more.