Your Guide to Buying an Antique Print

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Your Guide to Buying an Antique Print

Most art historians consider a print to be antique if it was made more than 100 years ago. The earliest European print dates to 1446, though engraving in China pre-dates this by hundreds of years. The print process has evolved over the centuries, but, prior to modern inkjet and laser printing, it still involved engraving an image onto a metal plate, applying ink, and then pressing it onto paper to produce a print of the image. An artist can make highly detailed or sketchy images depending on the number and thickness of the engraving lines. This buying guide will provide information about the history, types and styles of antique prints. It will also provide tips to assist the selection process, and instructions for care and maintenance after purchasing.

History of Antique Prints

The earliest prints date back to the Renaissance era. The paper was handmade and usually quite thick and uneven. The ink lines were also thick because most were made using woodcuts. Religious themes were common subjects, as were the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome that were celebrated during the Renaissance. Very few prints from this era used colour. From 1650 onwards, prints were made using both the etching technique and engraved copper plates. These featured finer lines due to the higher printing pressure and sharper engraving on the plate. By 1800, lithographs and aquatints were the finest prints available, and thinner paper was being manufactured by machine. Steel plate engraving appeared mid-century which offered much finer lines than copper. Plate marks were also reduced, as less pressure was needed to print. Paper got smoother still, as smoothness was a requirement of the new colour lithography printing.   

Discover Antique Prints

Antique prints have long been appreciated for both their aesthetic and investment value. They were the product of engraved, etched or lithographed plates. These plates were handmade out of wood or metal, which required an incredible level of skill, patience and craftsmanship. From the collector’s viewpoint, each print made from the plate is considered to be an original work of art. For this reason, antique engraved prints have become one of the most popular antique collectables. They are certainly worth more than a modern reproduction and will only increase in value.

Components of Antique Prints

The components of antique prints remained standard through the years, though they varied greatly in quality and nature.




Early woodcut prints used black ink almost exclusively, with colour emerging as copper plate engraving became popular


Early paper was handmade and rough, becoming smoother and thinner as time went by.


Some antique prints have been inserted into wood or metal frames.

Types of Antique Prints





Woodcut Prints

Print is made from a woodcut so the lines are very thick.

Earliest type of European prints and quite rare.

Not many coloured prints were made in this era so they are extremely rare.

Copper Plate Prints

Print is made from a copper plate and has stronger plate marks.

Copper plates produced finer detail in the print.

Look for handmade paper that should be thick and uneven.


Image is etched into wax that has been applied to a lithographic stone plate.

Produced excellent detail.

Lithograph paper should be thin.


Derived from the lithographic process.

The most successful 19th century method of making colour prints.

Prints of this nature are often referred to as ‘chromos’.

Etching Print

An intaglio printmaking technique where strong acid is used to cut into exposed parts of metal to make a plate.

Many masters worked in this form including Rembrandt and Castiglione.

Along with engraving it is the most important technique used for making old master prints.

Aquatint Print

A variant of etching.

Uses powdered rosin to create a unique tonal effect.

Goya’s Los Caprichos series used this method.

Mezzotint Print

A dry point method of intaglio printing that roughens the plate with thousands of little dots.

Prints have a high level of quality and richness.

M.C. Escher made famous prints of impossible constructions using this method.

Ukiyo-E Prints

Japanese colour prints made from multiple wooden block plates.

Prints often feature detailed facial expressions and beautiful clothes.

Ukiyo-E means ‘pictures of the floating world’.

Chinese Engraved Prints

Plate was created by carving images into stone slabs.

Good investment opportunity as the market is still growing.

Chinese engraving pre-dates European engraving

Factors to Consider When Buying an Antique Print

Shopping for an antique print can be interesting and rewarding. A little research and knowledge will help to inform the selection process.

  • Ÿ Authenticity – If the buyer is unsure about the authenticity of a print, they should ask for a written statement and guarantee from the seller about its age and origin.
  • Ÿ Condition – The condition of a print is important. Firstly, it can affect the degree of enjoyment derived from the print. Secondly, it will affect the value of the print. Examine all photos carefully, and ask the seller to post more if still unsatisfied.
  • Ÿ Importance – Historical importance will add value to a print. For example, an iconographic image from history or the first maps of a new territory are types of print that will be sought after.

Typical Features of Antique Prints

1. Del., delt. or delin. (Translation - drew)

The name following this mark on a print denotes the original artist i.e. the artist who did the original drawing that the engraver has reproduced.

2. Eng. or engd. (Translation – engraved)

The name following this mark is that of the engraver. Other marks that denote the engraver are ‘sculp’ and sculpt’.

3. F., fec., fect. fac. or faciebat. (Translation – made)

This mark denotes that the name that follows is the person who both drew the image also printed it.

4. Imp. impressit. (Translation – printed)

The name following this mark is that of the printer.

5. Imp. lith. (translation – lithograph)

This mark means the artwork is not an engraving, but a lithograph.

6. Pinx., ping.(Translation – painted)

The name following this mark is that of the artist who did the original painting that is reproduced.

7. Names

Usually the original artist's name is on the left, and the printer’s name is on the right.

8. Religious Themes

Many prints from the Renaissance era feature religious themes such as scenes from the bible, and scenes of churches, priests, the laity etc.

9. Ancient Cultural Themes

The Renaissance was a period of heightened interest in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. Many prints depict various gods, famous battle scenes and heroic adventures.

10. Flora and Fauna Themes

As European civilization expanded to China, Africa and the New World, specimens of exotic plants and animals were brought home. These were depicted in period prints, in often wildly unrealistic renderings because few artists had ever seen the real specimens.      

How to Care for Antique Prints              

Whether it’s a lithograph, copperplate engraving, mezzotint, or other type of print, the four basic areas of care are the same: handling, repairs, framing, and storage.

Great care must be exercised because the paper itself is so fragile, and often has little or no margin. Wear thin cotton gloves when handling, and store each print in a Mylar sleeve. Mylar is crystal-clear and does not interact chemically with the print. Do not attempt self-repairs. This includes the removal of stains, wrinkles, and pencil marks, fixing tears or holes, or addressing colour issues. Leave the restoration to professional conservators. Anti-UV framing glass is a must. This will deflect most of the harmful light that can destroy paper over time. If using mat board it must be archival quality mat board, so it does not chemically interact with the print. Antique prints should be stored in a dry, cool place. There are also excellent archival boxes available on the market.

Popular Makers of Antique Prints

  • Albrecht Durer
  • Edward Hopper
  • Francisco Goya
  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler
  • Käthe Kollwitz
  • Lucas van Leyden
  • Ludwig von Siegen
  • Max Klinger
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Rembrandt
  • Castiglione
  • Manet
  • Degas
  • Ando Hiroshige
  • Suzuki Harunobu
  • M.C. Escher

Accessories and Add-ons for Antique Prints

Antique prints require special care, including products that can be useful for maintenance. These include:

  • Mylar
  • Anti-UV glass
  • Frames
  • Archive box

Finding Antique Prints on eBay

Once you determine the type of antique print you want to purchase, visit the Antiques portal on eBay, find the ‘Decorative Arts’ sub-category, then click on the ‘Prints’ sub-category and start searching item listings. The Categories list on the left-hand side of the eBay page helps to narrow the search.

Searching for Antique Printson eBay

Search eBay listing titles for specific words when shopping for antique prints. For example, to find an American Civil War lithograph, type ‘American antique prints’ into the search box, and then click the Advanced button to customise the results. Also visit eBay’s Search Tipspage for more advice on searching for antique prints with keywords. If you can’t find the exact antique print you want, try shopping eBay Stores.


This guide provides much of the information necessary to properly research antique prints. Once you have collected this information, you can buy an antique print safely and securely on eBay.

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