Highs and Lows for Early Currier & Ives Lithos

By Anne Gilbert
   Hard to believe, the Currier and Ives lithographs that come to shops and auctions, sometimes costing thousands of dollars, once could be had for a few cents. They were affordable to just about everyone. The January 30 auction held by The Old Print shop offered some early examples ranging in price from $250 to over $9,000.
   When Nathaniel Currier, a lithographer, created what was probably the first illustrated newspaper “extra” in history, in 1840, depicting the fire aboard the steamboat Lexington, a new type of art was born. The “Extra Sun,” illustrating a realistic drawing of the tragedy that killed hundreds, was reprinted in newspapers across the country. At a time when photography was virtually unknown and reproductions of drawings a time consuming process, Currier began offering prints of important current events. In 1857 he joined forces with James Merritt Ives, a self-trained artist. For fifty years they produced an average of three or four new prints every week.
   It was perfect timing. The rapidly growing middle and upper classes were looking for new ways to display their affluence. However, it was the middle and lower income classes where they found a ready market. By the time they closed their doors they had sold millions of prints in unlimited editions from over 7,000 titles.
   Their prints covered a wide range of subjects from the Mexican and Civil Wars to clipper ships, sporting events and seasonal scenes of houses and landscapes.
   Portraits were the most common subjects. They immortalized stage actresses, royalty, Presidents and politicians. Not often seen are prints made for children.
   CLUES: In the 1920s, 30s, there was a resurgence of interest in collecting antiques from the 19th century, especially Currier and Ives prints. Despite the vast numbers of their prints produced, many hadn’t survived. The demand became greater than the supply. Restrikes (reproductions) of some of the most popular subjects were made. The originals were hand-painted.
   Always examine the print out of the frame. Value is less if the print has been cut down to fit a frame.
   It will be interesting to see the results of The Old Print Shop auction. Check it out on your cell or internet.    PHOTO CAPTION: (1) Currier and Ives litho “My Three White Kittens.” (The third white kitten is cut off in this photo.) Estimate $450-$500. PHOTO CAPTION : (2) Currier and Ives litho “Early Winter.” Estimate $7,500/ $9,500. PHOTO CREDIT: The Old Print Shop, Bidsquare, N.Y.

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