How to date Watanabe publisher seals

Watanabe Shozaburo ownership seals on prints by Kawase Hasui, Ito Shinsui, Natori Shunsen, Ohara Koson among other shin-hanga artists.

Ownership seals were applied when a print was removed from inventory, not when the edition was printed, and so are not reliable for dating. Examine the quality of the impression and provenance for precise dating.

A copyright seal B copyright seal C copyright seal D copyright seal type 1 D copyright seal type 2 E copyright seal F copyright seal G copyright seal H copyright seal I copyright seal J1 copyright seal J2 copyright seal K copyright seal L copyright seal M copyright seal N copyright seal O copyright seal
A B C D1 D2 E F G H I J1 J2 K L M N O
A1March 1909-1916. Round2, diameter 10mm approx. Watanabe ワタナベ in katakana.
1915-1926. Round, diameter 6mm3 approx.
B1926-1930. Reads copyright Watanabe Shozaburo (Kako). 版権所有渡邊庄三郎
C1930-1932. Reads published by Watanabe. 版元渡邊版画店
D11931-ca 1933. Colloquially referred to as the Sausage seal. Type 1 seal not seen after 1933. Reads copyright Watanabe Shozaburo. 版権所有渡邊庄三郎
D2ca 1933-1942.
E1932-1941. The Watanabe family seal is followed by kanji reading copyright and not to be reproduced without permission. Note the border-line breaks.
F1932-1942. Reads published by Watanabe in Ginza.
G1934-1941. Reads designed by Watanabe in Ginza.
H1942-1945. Reads designed by Watanabe.
I1945-present.4 Round, diameter 6mm to 7mm.5
J11916-September 1923. Diamond-shaped label adhered to prints before the Great Kanto earthquake. No. 11 Gorobei-cho, Kyobashi-ku, Tokyo.
J2November 1925-March 1930. No. 14 Hiyoshi-cho, Kyobashi-ku, Tokyo. 四十町吉日区橋京市東京
March 1930-ca 1955. No. 9 Nishi 8-chome, Ginza, Tokyo. 九 ノ八西座銀区橋京市東京
ca 1955-ca 1995. 6-19 Ginza 8-chome, Tokyo. 東京都中央区銀座8-6-19
K1915-1960. Watanabe's personal seal. Erroneously referred to as the Gift seal.6 Watanabe わたなべ in hiragana.
Lca 1979. Reads copyright Watanabe Tadasu.7 版元銀座渡邊規
M1989-2019. Red colour. Heisei era seal. Indicates a print from older woodblocks, not necessarily original woodblocks. 8
N2012-present. Indicates a reproduction, that is, a print made from newly carved woodblocks. Reads copyright Watanabe Shoichiro. 版権所有渡邊章一郞
O2019-present. Black colour. Reiwa era seal. Indicates a print from older woodblocks, not necessarily original woodblocks. 8

1 Following the nomenclature of the Hasui catalogue raisonne (Hotei), the first ownership seal is, logically, the A seal. Date ranges described by Watanabe Tadasu and amended based on new data - new data from large online databases and longitudinal data from block wear and provenance of selected Hasui prints.

2 There was also a rare square version of the seal.

3 The round 6mm seal continued on prints after the Great Kanto earthquake (1923). For example, very early impressions of Hasui's Zojoji Temple in Shiba (1925) with virtually no keyblock wear exclusively featured the round seal and, if one does not examine the impression, these might very easily be mistaken for post-war prints. This seal continued on Hasui prints until 1926. This seal continued on Shinsui prints until the 1960s.

4 Designs that were first issued in the late-1920s or 1930s with round seals are usually identified as post-war prints.

5 Watanabe Shoichiro and leading Hasui scholar Shimizu Hisao have each stated that the round hanko seal applied on any particular day, its size and colour, was essentially random. Prints verified from the 1940s-50s typically had 6.5mm to 6.7mm diameter although there were many outliers ranging from 5.5mm (without the outer circle) to 7.1mm.

The mistaken belief directly correlating older prints and smaller seals has been attributed to Westerners misunderstanding how hanko seals were made and applied by Japanese. Prints with smaller seals were sold by the publisher from 1915 to 1989, after which time the publisher standardised size to 7mm.

6 Watanabe in fact used a different seal for gifts (see below). Seal K may be stamped on the front or verso and usually, but not always, the round seal was applied on the same print.

7 Various artists and limited edition prints. On Hasui commemorative edition prints it was accompanied with round 6mm seal.

8 Prints on which this seal appears have usually had many of their colour blocks recarved e.g. Hasui and sometimes all woodblocks recarved e.g. Toyonari. Watanabe describes these as atozuri, which translates to later prints (as opposed to shokizuri, early prints).

Note 1: Printer seals

P1 printer seal P2 printer seal
P1 P2
P11944-1951. Reads printer Ono Gintaro (1884-1965). Designated P1 in Hotei.
P21937-1944. Reads master printer Ono Gintaro. 摺師斧銀太郎

Gintaro was printer for Watanabe from 1911 to 1956 approx. Note that the P2 seal, master printer, antedates the P1 seal, which simply reads printer.

Note 2: Miscellaneous seals

Yoshida seal Shunsen seal Test seal Gift seal Postwar stamp 1970s sticker
M1 M2 M3 M4 M5 M6
M11921. Hiroshi Yoshida prints. The Watanabe family seal is followed by kanji reading publisher.
M21925-1928. Natori Shunsen prints. Reads published by Watanabe. 渡邊工
M31920s. Test print, tameshizuri 試摺
M4After 1928. Gift seal, shintei 進呈
M5After 1930. Blue stamp on verso.
M61970s. Label adhered to verso of prints or frames.

M3 indicates a trial or proof print. The difference between proof and final print is often very subtle. M4 indicates a gift or presentation print. The stamp may be on the front or reverse, and may be accompanied by an inscription. M5 is probably an export stamp, similar to the verso stamp "Made in Japan" that appeared on prints between 1929 and 1955 approx.

Note 3: Reproductions

Reproductions with seal N were very well carved and create high quality impressions. In many ways these are superior prints to those with seals M and O that may retain some link to original woodblocks. Those weathered and worn woodblocks, especially those first issued in the 1920s or 1930s, result in quite poor impressions.

Note 4: Fake and forged seals

Unscrupulous dealers have been known to fake seals A, B, C (including a variation, hanmoto Watanabe Shozaburo), D, E and F. Their aim of course is to make a print appear older increasing its perceived scarcity and market value.

It is recommeded to always examine the impression as the difference between an early impression and later impression is quite obvious. Early impressions tend to have clear and sharp lines. Later impressions from worn woodblocks can be quite blurred in appearance. A later impression with early seals is not plausible.

It is recommended to be sceptical when two seals - double seals - appear on a print. This may be legitimate with certain combinations of seals (A and B ca 1926; D2 and I ca 1945), however, it is unusual and it's possible that a fake seal was added to make the print appear older. Watanabe Shoichiro and the Ukiyo-e Dealers Association of Japan recently warned that Hasui prints were sold in Japan with newly forged seals. Seals M and O had been removed from the margin and replaced with earlier copyright seals such as D and E (August 17, 2022).

It is recommended to be especially sceptical when Watanabe seals appear on a print originally made by another publisher such as Doi Sadaichi (seriously, this has happened).

Later impressions missing all seals often sell for significant premiums at auction. These prints are typically unauthorized prints made by the printer and sold by the printer or his estate. A printer was in fact dismissed for selling unauthorized Hasui prints for ¥5000 each. Significant premiums at auction require at least two bidders - at least two bidders possibly intending on applying forged seals for profit.

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