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( Originally Published 1951 )
Hunbdreds of Currier & Ives prints are still gathering dust in innumerable attics throughout the country, and in some instances the owners are entirely unaware of their value. A few years ago, for example, I received a post card from a lady in the South, advising me that she had a copy of The Tight Fix. She also furnished the exact dimensions of her print. I knew the print had been reproduced several times but had never heard of a reproduction made in this particular size. I paid her a visit and found that the print was an original. She told me that her husband's father had bought the print many years ago and after his death it had been kept by them for sentimental reasons. Shortly before writing me the picture had been damaged and it was then decided to destroy it. Fortunately, a neighbor dropped in before this was done. Having heard that some of the Currier prints were valuable, she suggested that they make further inquiries.
This particular print figures in another story which has come to my attention. A man in Ohio bought at an auction sale a large frame to fit a picture he had at home. The frame cost eighty cents. When he removed the worthless picture that was in the frame he found underneath The Life of a Hunter/A Tight Fix. A copy of this print was sold in 1928 for $3,000.
The man most responsible for the present-day popularity of Currier & Ives prints was the late Harry T. Peters, who started collecting them long before their merits were generally recognized. One of the first prints he found was tacked up on a stable wall in Greenwich, Connecticut. The print was titled "Trotting Cracks" at the Forge and is very rare. On another occasion he stopped at an old harness shop in Newburgh, where he saw several prints displayed on easels in the window. The harness maker told Mr. Peters that his father was a former agent for Currier & Ives and had sold their prints for many years. Mr. Peters bought about thirty large folio prints at prices ranging from $1.00 to $5.00 each. Included in the group was the print Home to Thanksgiving which today sells for over a thousand dollars. He also published two volumes on Currier & Ives both of which are out of print and are collectors' items.
Mr. Peters had the largest collection of Currier & Ives prints in the country. Another early collector was William Whiting Nolen, an assistant biology professor at Harvard and a private tutor until his death in 1923. He visited many antique shops and picked up many of his prints from fifty cents to several dollars each. After his death, a two-day auction was necessary to dispose of his entire collection, from which nearly $20,000 was realized.
Nearly 7,000 different subjects were published by Currier & Ives, and an estimated total of 10,000,000 copies were sold from 1834 to 1907. Prints are being found not only in the United States and Canada but in England, Ireland, France, Holland and Germany. Unfortunately for present-day collectors, many of the prints were tacked up without frames on walls of stables, inns, and barber shops and were replaced from time to time with other more timely subjects. Sometimes the Currier & Ives imprint was erased, possibly to prevent people from knowing that the owners had bought these cheap prints. On others the white margins have been trimmed, and prints in this condition are less valuable than unmutilated copies.
The Currier store on Nassau Street was a favorite meeting place of many of the well-known people of the day, including Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, Shepherd Knapp, William Porter, Hiram WoodrufF, and P. T. Barnum, and many cartoons were published by Currier showing these people. According to Thomas Worth, Currier's store was a fascinating place containing the greatest mass and jumble of pictures ever seen; thousands of them were tacked up, framed and unframed; others were lying about in great heaps. Out on the sidewalk stood tables piled high with the cheaper prints which were guarded and sold by a boy. The walls of the store were lined with great bins which contained the prints. Thick sheets of cardboard separated the various classes of subjects, and the lid of each bin bore an inventory.
Down the center of the store were long tables piled high with prints, and the walls were hung with oil paintings that had been reproduced and were for sale.
Currier & Ives distributed numerous order lists which were kept up to date by the inclusion of new titles published by them. A typical one reads as follows:
CATALOG OF POPULAR PRINTS
Published by Currier dr Ives, 123 & 125 Nassau Street, New York
Probably no collection of prints ever published offers so many inducements to dealers as this catalog. Our long experiences in the trade makes us thoroughly acquainted with the wants of the public and the best methods of producing coon PICTURES at small expense. In fact, without exception all that we have published for the past thirty-eight years (and they comprise several thousand) have met with a quick and ready sale. Old and wornout plates are discarded at the beginning of the year and only new and popular subjects kept on the catalog. Size of paper 13 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.
Any of these prints will be sent by mail on receipt of the price, 20 cents each. All are colored except those marked "Plain."
Address Currier & Ives 123 & 5 Nassau Street
A lithographed form letter accompanied each order list, as follows:
Our lowest wholesale price is Sixty Dollars per thousand, but to accommodate customers who cannot conveniently purchase a thousand at a time, we sell them at the same rate or six dollars by the hundred, or any part of a hundred. Our terms are strictly cash.
Special leaflets were distributed covering important events immediately after their occurrence. For instance, in 1878, after the death of Pope Pius IX, they announced the publication of several portraits of the Pope, a scene at his death, and another scene showing the body lying in state before the altar of St. Peter's, Rome, together with a portrait of the new Pope Leo XIII. Another leaflet announcing "Prints for the Political Campaign" included the first caricature of the campaign: A Philosopher in Ecstasy, showing Horace Greeley catching the butterfly.
Currier retired in 1880, and Ives carried on the business with Currier's son until his death in 1895. During this period many trotting prints were published, including many of the earlier trotting subjects with the distinguishing portions of the background removed or altered and with changed titles. After 1892 the old high-wheeled sulkies were supplanted by the new low-wheeled pneumatic-tired "bikes," and this necessitated a further change in composition of some of the old subjects. Practically all of the Darktown subjects were published during this period. Most of them were drawn by Thomas Worth, but some were drawn by King and Murphy. Many of those drawn by King were not signed by him.
After the death of Ives few new subjects were published. One of the last prints published was Col. Theodore Roosevelt U. S.V./Commander o f the famous Rough Riders. This print is very rare although it was copyrighted as late as 1898.
Nathaniel Currier died in 1888, and the firm finally went out of business in 1907. The equipment, stones and prints were sold at auction. Most of the lithographic stones were sold by the pound after the drawings had been removed. Joseph Koehler bought the rights to republish many of the Darktown subjects, and Max Williams, another dealer, bought some of the large-sized clipper ship stones from which he printed additional copies. These prints cannot be classed as reproductions since they were printed from the original stones, but the printing, paper, and coloring is inferior to Currier's work, and they command but a fraction of the price paid for the originals.
The advent of illustrated magazines and newspapers, and the increasing use of reproductions due to photography and the half-tone process, shortened appreciably the time elapsing between the occurrence of an event and its publication. Currier prints began to diminish in popularity and rapidly went out of style.
Some years after Currier went out of business, a few astute collectors and dealers realized the importance of these prints and. started collecting them. In the 1920s several important collections were sold at auction, and many of the prints brought greatly increased prices. Many people thought collecting Currier prints was a temporary fad, but when these sales were followed by the Norman James and Philip Benkard sales, it was apparent that Currier prints had a permanent place in the field of Americana.