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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Lithograph; Currier & Ives; "The Express Train," hand-colored, 11 3/4 inches by 15 3/4 inches, $2,310. Photo courtesy of Garth's
On any given afternoon in 1858 at the corner of Nassau and Spruce streets in the heart of New York City, customers leafed through colorful prints in well-stocked bins lining the walls of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives’ print shop.

Above the bins hung oil paintings waiting to be reproduced as lithographs. Everything had a price tag on it.

Currier & Ives were household names in America, the most successful lithographers and print sellers in America.

At home in the country, a midnight race on the Mississippi River, a snowy return for Thanksgiving dinner on the farm, news events, oceanic steam ships, the fireman’s life, important political figures, and the skating pond in 19th century Central Park, such was the world of Currier & Ives.

Think of the prints as a visual e-mail of 19th century American life. Before the days of photojournalism, nothing compared to the look and feel these lithographic studies offered of bustling life in the city or peaceful days on the farm.

“It was left to the lithographers to mirror the life of our ancestors in all its phases, and to satisfy their hungry minds and eyes,” said Harry T. Peters in his “America on Stone.”

Currier & Ives promoted the company as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures.” They issued about 10 million prints on nearly 10,000 subjects that sold through street vendors and retail outlets, as well as by mail.

Prints were also sold in Europe, Australia and in Latin America. Back then, prices ranged from 20 cents to $6 for large folio (single-sheet) sizes.

In today’s marketplace, size makes a big difference in value. The large folio prints usually possess superior art, fully developed composition, more detail, and better coloring than smaller prints.

An inexpensive Currier & Ives product sometimes overlooked by collectors today are the postcard-size trade cards given away by merchants during the era to advertise their goods and services. Many were smaller versions of the larger prints and can often be found at flea markets, estate sales and auctions.

The company’s lithographic process produced a black-and-white image that was then handcolored. Some were sold in black-and-white, or plain, but most were designed for color. The colored prints are more desirable.

Modern reproductions of Currier & Ives prints abound and don’t carry the same value. Under a magnifying glass, the continuous color-tones you expect to see in a lithographic print show up as tiny dots, a giveaway of reproductions.

To complicate things, fakes have also been produced with the old continuous-tone process that makes it darn near impossible to tell the difference.

But the paper can be a giveaway. The firm used heavy, almost pure-white paper in color, none of the beige or tinted shades seen in modern prints.

The old paper was generally resistant to staining and that’s why, over a century later, authentic prints can show up in great condition. Condition is a critical factor in value. Stains and rips can be repaired, but trimmed margins can’t.

On May 25, Garth’s Auctions in Delaware, Ohio, offered a selection of Currier & Ives prints in its arts and antiques auction. Here are some current values.

Currier & Ives

Lithograph; Currier & Ives; “The Old Mill, In Summer;” handcolored; 11 by 14 1/8 inches; $165.

Lithograph: Currier & Ives; “A Summer Ramble,” family taking a walk; handcolored; 19 13/16 by 14¾ inches; $412.50.

Lithograph; Currier & Ives; “Maple Sugaring. Early Spring in the Northern Woods;” handcolored; 10¾ by 13 inches; $770.

Lithograph; Currier & Ives; “Bound Down The River;” handcolored; 10 by 14 inches; $1,100.

Lithograph; Currier & Ives; horseracing print, “Flora Temple and Princess;” handcolored; 24¾ by 32 inches; $1,100.

Lithograph; N. Currier; “American Country Life, Summers evening;” handcolored; 20 by 26 inches; $1,430.

Lithograph; Currier & Ives; “The Express Train;” handcolored; 11¾ by 15¾ inches; $2,310.

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