Estate Sale Find: Japanese Wood Block Prints (and typewriters)

A couple of weeks back I found these beautiful vintage / antique Japanese woodblock prints. The first one I found was signed Sadao Watanabe. It was on the floor under a table on which sat boxes of old letters and magazine from the 1940s and 1950s. I was interested in the letters and removed several from plastic baggies looking for something more than what I usually find in old letters: the mundane recounting of day to day life. Letters from that time are like conversations over the fence with neighbors back in those nostalgic days when people seemed to have more time on their hands or weren’t in such a rush. For me, always hungry for a plot, I’d grown bored with everyday epistolary correspondences from the 19th and 20th centuries. I still looked and sometimes purchased but I have yet to find a love story, or a family secret. Underneath that table, I saw a framed picture on it’s side leaned up against cardboard boxes. It was the picture (shown below) below by Sadao Watanabe. I considered not buying it. It was $10 and I thought maybe it was a page taken from an art book and framed by the owner.  I really liked the print because I love folk art and I loved the colors. So, I purchased it along with a typewriter for my 18 year old niece, a fiction writer. (She’d been looking for an old blue typewriter–Note: it is dangerous for any family member or friend to tell me you’re looking for something vintage. It becomes a mission to find it!)

The Print

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The Typewriter

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The Text to My Niece About the Typewriter

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When I returned home I googled the print and saw that  Sadao Watanabe was a well respected Japanese Woodblock artist.He has a  Wikipedia page and I discovered that most of his art pieces were Christian scenes; he converted to Christianity as an orphaned youth. It was notable, according to Wikipedia, that Watanabe depicted Christian scenes in Japanese contexts. I found several art collector websites featuring his work. Some of his work was quite valuable. Still, I liked the print more for aesthetic reasons, but then again $10 was a very good deal. A steal even.

So I went back to the estate sale in a 1950s colonial house on a quaint, tree lined street in Portland, Oregon. This time I searched the house like crazy for more Watanabe prints. I found stacks of posters mixed with some other Japanese prints. I selected a bunch of unframed prints that were marked $3.00 each. These were unsigned and looked like real wood block prints (I later learned that authentic block prints bleed through the paper on the back). However, the $3.00 ones I guessed were not probably worth much, but still they were beautiful.

Slideshow of Prints I found for $3.00 each

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Then… I found another typewriter

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And I texted my niece again:

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Just as I was about to pay I noticed a stack of prints on the counter near the register (where they usually put more expensive items). I found three prints that I loved and they were priced higherthan the others.. One was $7.00, another was marked $30.00. The third was a little more than that. I bought all three.

The first was my favorite. I loved the dark and stormy scene. It was incredible to me that it was a woodblock print because of the detail and watercolor-like effect. I also liked the glowing yellow light of the street lamp and the way the rain fell in diagonal lines and how that contrasted with fluid bodies rushing to get out of the rain. This print was signed “A Stormy Night”  and”Hiroaki.” When I returned home I again googled for information. I found out that the artist Shotei Hiroaki had lived a fascinating life.This article has a lot of information about his work and his life.  Most notable was that all of his woodblocks had been destroyed in a fire during an earth quake in the early 1900s and he painstakingly re-carved many of his most well known pieces. It was also rumored that he was killed during 1945 the bombing of Hiroshima during a visit with his sister who lived in the city.

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The other two pieces in the “more expensive” section of the estate sale were also quite beautiful. I am still researching these artists and only one of the prints are signed. still, I love them and the old textured paper used to print the woodblocks.

This one was a lot smaller than the others but was signed.

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And this last one (below) had no signature but a paper included with the author information (I’ll add a pic of that later as I am in a cafe right now). This one is one of my favorites too.Like the Hiroaki, the lines and colors (or lack of) gave it a very moody feeling. This one seemed somehow sweeter  than Hiroaki’s A Stormy Night, more hopeful. Maybe it’s the evidence of light through the trees, a long channel of pale gray. Or the way the rain was depicted in vertical lines. And, in this picture no one is rushing to get out of the scene.

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I love all of these woodblock prints. I am continuing to educate myself on the art and the artists. I know they are all from the 1930s to 1960s. I found this short documentary on the history and the process,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDExwfvlFC8

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