Lithograph is a a word you will hear thrown around a lot if you spend any amount of time in the art or auction industry looking at antique prints and graphics. To many people, every print is a “lithograph” though this is not technically correct. Lithograph is NOT a term, it is a medium of print making. There are dozens of print mediums and when buying or selling a print at auction it is important to know exactly what kind you have; know what you need to look for to ensure that you’re getting a true lithograph and not a half-tone lithograph or another medium entirely. A little bit of knowledge on how do identify an actual lithograph can go a long way in making collecting or reselling prints very rewarding. As a common medium used by many famous publishing houses and print makers, from Currier & Ives to Picasso, knowing how to identify an authentic lithograph is a necessity.
The process by which lithographs are made is called lithography and dates back to 1796. The term lithograph comes from the Greek, “litho” meaning “stone” and “graphein” meaning to write. Originally, lithographs were carved into heavy blocks of limestone, inked and run through a press. They can be printed in color, hand colored after, black and white, modern or antique and on any type of paper or cloth. Not all lithographs today are created from a stone. While these variations can make identifying various types of lithographs tricky they do have common features, namely how the ink appears and rests on the paper and whether or not there is a plate mark.
Tools of the trade: 10x, 30x or 50x magnification.
Taking a close look with magnification is your best bet to know if you’re looking at an actual lithograph. For the novice and even experts, a magnifying glass is essential to get a closer look at a lithograph. You need at least a 10x magnifying glass or even a jeweler’s loop. A 30x is recommended, but a 50x would really be beneficial to the newbie. Specifically, you are looking for how the ink is spread across the paper for lithographs and really all prints. A lithograph it will look like the image to the left. Overall the softer tones will give the illusion of solid application of the inked areas. Note the blots of ink giving it a soft tone in some places while being thicker in others. You may even notice some areas of truly solid application when looking at a lithograph, so it is helpful to focus on areas where solid color and soft tones (ink blots) converge, looking at many areas of the print. With time you will quickly begin to recognize distinguishing features of lithography ease.
Absence of Plate Mark
A quick indicator that you might actually have a lithograph on your hands is that lithographs DO NOT have a plate mark which is the indent left by a printing plate as with etchings and engravings (see example image to the right). Some lithographs however are mounted to paper with a false plate mark giving you the impression that it is an engraving for example. That is why, to be sure what you are looking at, magnification is usually the best method. Lithographs will frequently have a neat line which is the solid ink boarder around the lithograph or where the margins meet the impression, but no indent should be present. When in doubt turn to your magnifying glass.
Practice Makes Perfect
The best way to develop your eye for prints is through practice. The best way to get quality practice is to look at examples where the medium has been identified by a trusted expert, such as a museum, library or a mentor. Examining the print out of a frame is ideal as glass (especially matte glass) may obscure the tiny features you are looking for as well as other condition issues. It is always best to examine any print out of a frame to judge both the medium and any condition issues. Ideally, as a buyer and collector you want to be able to judge medium and condition for yourself and not be forced to rely on the opinion of others who have a vested interest in selling you a piece.
Just because an auctioneer or a dealer tells you something is a lithograph, doesn’t mean they have taken the necessary steps to ensure it really is a stone lithograph. They may be simply be using the term because it sounds more sophisticated than “print.” It may be a half tone lithograph or a even a collotype (which often looks very similar to lithography). Seeing it and being able to judge for yourself will not only better the chances that you are truly getting a lithograph, but also have you well on your way to being an expert in your own right.
GraphicsAtlas.org: An excellent reference for learning to identify lithographs and prints of any medium.
LiveAuctioneers: A good resource to get an idea of value of a piece. Be careful though, because interpreting the data you find from auction results can be an art in itself.
How to Identify Prints
The book with all the answers, a handy reference even for seasoned veterans in prints and a must read for every beginner interested in seriously collecting or selling prints.