Is your antique fashion print antique?

detail of the faceIf you collect prints you might already know: “it is important to know if the print is genuine or not”. A genuine antique print is usually far more valuable than a reproduction, especially when it is a rare antique print. So, how can you tell if your fashion print is the real stuff? Even better, how can you prevent yourself from purchasing a fake fashion print?

Pressing and printing techniques

Here are some simple guidelines to help you to determine if your print is an antique or a reproduction. In this article I will focus on plates produced on the old fashion way, via the so called printing technique of engraving. Engraving or etching is a technique were a metal plate is carved out with a sharp object and ink is rubbed into the carved lines. The ink is then rubbed from the plate but remains in the crevices of the carved lines The metal plates are then run through a press and paper is pushed with great force into the inked lines. Because of the weight and force used you can see a pressed line around the image in the paper. However these pressed lines in the paper are often trimmed of the fashion plates. Because of the labor intensive and costly procedure of the engraving process this technique lost its popularity during the beginning of the 19th century.

Illiterate ladies with fancy dresses

Important French leading magazines like La mode Illustree, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Le Petit Courrier des Dames and the likes, considered their fashion plates an art form and no expense was was spared to create them. Quality paper and ink was used, leading artists and designers were brought in to draw the pictures and master engravers did the steel carving.  The prints were often hand colored by art students or artist that needed the money. The fashion plates soon became a huge success! The popularity of these prints was not in the last place accredited to the fact that most women could not read and write in the beginning of the 19th century. It was simply not appropriate nor necessary for a lady to read or write. Because of this reason, looking at pictures played a big role in “informing oneself about the latest trends”. Because of the high quality and beauty of the fashion prints, they are still very much collected around the world today!

Here are four tips that help you determine the authenticity of your antique fashion print.

1. If it’s too white, something is not right.

Very old paper doesn’t look snow white.  Over the years, micro organisms have their way with the paper causing the pH value of the paper to increase. The residue that organisms leave behind, often leave spots and marks in the paper. Next to these organisms, sun damage and years of accumulated smoke also can cause yellowing and browning of the print. Some sellers resort to harsh bleaching agents to whiten the prints. This is very harmful in the long run. I would recommend not buying those. Generally speaking, discoloration, yellowing and browning of the paper is a sign of old age, it comes with, and is part of its authenticity.

2. Use a magnifier

When you use a magnifier to look at an antique print, you can determine with what kind of printing technique you are dealing.  At the end of this article you can find some in depth resources that help you understand all printing techniques used. In the case of antique fashion prints, you should look for regular dotted, or beehive shaped patterns that indicate you are dealing with a common impostor! A regular steel engraved antique fashion print has many details that you can’t even see to well with the naked eye.

A steel engraved fashion print should look something like the photo on the right. So invest in some magnifiers. Its worth the money and they are not that pricey. When buying antique prints online, make sure you ask for close-ups or only buy from sellers that provide them with the description. When browsing local markets, keep a small pocket magnifier with you to check out the print on the spot. “Good” details  in antique fashion prints you should look for with a magnifier are:

  • Use of gold paint used for jewelry.
  • Hand applied paint that goes clearly beyond the lines of the print.
  • Infilled make-up colors and blush. Irregular dots and lines applied by hand.
  • Use of areas waxed with Arabian gum.

“Bad” details you should look for are:

  • Regular, apparently generated perfectly lined dots in RGB
  • Bee hive shaped patterns in CMYK
  • Colors that do not coat the whole surface of a place, colors that overlap.

 3. Look for plate marks, it sounds bad but it is a good thing!

Steel engravings are made by applying ink to a steel plate and pressing it onto the paper. These plates left marks around the printed area, usually shaped in a rounded rectangle around the illustrated area. Look for these imprints of pressure around the image. It is a sign of the prints authenticity!

4 Look at the paper that is used

Before the 19th century, laid paper was used. Laid paper has a very different production procedure then modern, woven paper and also different composition. After the 19th century they used a more modern and cheaper way to produce paper. This modern paper was very high in wood pulp content which made this paper very prone to yellowing. However, many French antique fashion prints continued to be printed on laid paper because of the quality the publishers wanted to deliver with their magazines. These prints on laid paper often have a watermark as well as the typical horizontal stripes, that seem to be embedded in the paper. (a trade of laid paper) I think its safe to say that antique fashion prints printed on laid paper, are usually more valuable then those that are not.

In general:

  • Prints on laid paper are often older and more valuable.
  • Look for watermarks in the paper by holding the print against the light
  • Look for the type of paper used, do you see horizontal stripes in the paper? Than it is laid paper.
  • Very modern paper often feels very smooth compared to old fashion types of paper that has high contents of viberous wood pulp.

Some examples of old and new printing techniques I have come across are shown here.




These were some of the authentication markers that I have come across regarding collecting antique fashion prints. I hope it helps you collecting the prints you are looking for!

If you want more in depth information about identifying old and antique prints, check out these two great resources:

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