Many years ago, back in the 1970's, when we first ventured in to the art and antiques business, Currier and Ives prints were still about ... that is, the large folio prints that most folks think of when they hear the words 'Currier and Ives'. We're all familiar with them from seeing them on everything from Christmas cards to calendars. Americana at its finest and depicting every aspect of life in America in the mid nineteenth century.
Remember though, we're talking about those large folio prints. The big scenes. There were several sizes published and they can loosely be described as large, medium and small. (There were some very small prints published but we'll ignore those for the purpose of this primer). The most common prints (because they were published in the largest quantities) have always been the small folio prints which were hand colored stone lithographs of Victorian ladies; children; animals and religious subjects. When we first entered the trade, these prints were known as 'sentimental' prints and at that time (the 1970's) you couldn't give 'em away.
Times change, of course. Since the early 1970's there has been a steadily growing interest in Country and Americana antiques in general and the theme is as popular as ever when it comes to decorating. So those old 'sentimental' prints which nobody wanted have finaly attained popularity. Antique lovers, and Country Style decorators in particular, love the look of these mid nineteenth century prints in their original old frames, sometimes with wavy or bubbly glass, and collectors have sprung up who search for them by subject or theme ... ladies, children, etc.
Naturally, as the demand for them has increased, so has the price and some of the rarer and most popular ones have risen into the low hundreds. Typically, an original small folio print in the original or period frame, in reasonable condition, will sell in the $100. to $150. range. They're not hard to find, either. Take a trip around most large antiques malls and you're bound to turn up one or two. But whether you're a new collector or you just want them to decorate with, there's a few things you should be aware of and to watch out for.
First, of course, is originality. Fortunately, the vast majority of small folio 'sentimental' type prints haven't been reproduced. Be very cautious when you run into a typical large folio subject in a small version. Chances are it's a calendar print or a book illustration. You'll find these in the malls too. However, modern photomechanical reproductions just don't have the look of an old hand colored stone lithograph and even the uninitiated can usually spot the difference. Once you become familiar with the originals it's hard to be fooled.
Next, be aware of what is an acceptable condition. You can expect a 150 year old print to show it's age. Let's face it, that's sort of what makes them attractive in the first place. A little fading or 'time toning' of the paper is acceptable. We can even put up with a few tiny holes or even some light staining outside the image but major stains inside the image or any significant tears in the paper is out! The acceptability of old frames is a personal thing. Some people are willing to lovingly accept a ratty old frame ... other's aren't. You're on your own there ...
The hand coloring is something to be aware of. These were originally hand colored in watercolors, more or less on assembly lines by young ladies working for pennies. Don't expect all the colors to be 'inside the lines' These ladies were being paid 'piece work' and quantity was more important to them than quality. Also, some colors used were fugitive ... that is, prone to fading over time. This is particularly true of greens (a combination of yellow and blue) ... the yellow fades with the result that a green dress becomes blue over time. Because of this color fading, many prints have been 'touched up' or recolored in more recent times. Most of these efforts are easy to spot. The colors are often too garish and just don't look right. A good rule... if the coloring doesn't look right, the chances are it isn't!
No matter what your reason is for purchasing a small Currier, always strive for the best overall condition you can find. Like everything else in the antiques world ... prices keep going up. Some day, your little Currier just might be worth a lot of money.
The world of Currier and Ives is a fascinating one. I haven't even scratched the surface here. If you want to learn more, simply 'Google' the words. Wikipedia is a good place to start. If you want to see lots of them for sale, take a look at the website for The Old Print Shop in Philadelphia, our favorite antique print dealer. For the small Curriers I've been talking about, we always have a few for sale on our website and as of writing this, some of the prints illustrated here are currently for sale.
Oh, and we should point out that the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.