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How to Tell a Chromolithograph

Posted Thursday, February 16 by Brian

Last month I wrote an article about How to Identify Color Separation Prints. Color separations are the "modern" way to print in color. That is how today's magazines and other mass produced color prints are done, and how antique prints are reproduced. The technology to do color separations has been available since the very late 1800's, and began slowly to replace chromolithography as the technology of choice for printing in color.

Chromolithography, or color printing from a stone, only reached the market in the 1870's and was all but non-existant by the end of the 1930's. It's heyday was the 1880's and 1890's. Most chromolithography after the early 1900's was used for cigar labels, posters, and some fruit crate labels. I'm sure there were other uses, but those are the printed items that most collectors care about after 1900.

If you are looking at buying an old poster that is supposed to be from the 1930's or earlier, make sure that it is a stone lithograph and not a color separation. Many old posters have been reproduced using more modern color separation techniques.

To tell the difference, you will need a strong magnifier. A 10x jewelers loupe is ideal, but a 5x pocket magnifier may work, if your eyes are pretty good and you have an idea of what to look for. First let's look at a black and white lithograph from the early 1880's(on the left) and a chromolithograph from the 1890's (on the right). Remember that lithographs are printed from a stone and will have the grain of the stone in the print. You will see "dots" of color, but they will be irregular when compared to the "dots" in a color separation. You can click on any of these photos to double their size. The small photos approximate what you would see through a 5x magnifier. The larger photos approximate a 10x loupe.
Litho BW.jpgChromolithograph.jpg
Because the dots in the chromolithograph come from the stone it was printed on, the dots will not always look the same. They will look like the grain in the stone used. Here is a close up of a cigar label (late 1930's) on the left and a color separation on the right.
Chromolithograph3.jpgColor Separation CU.jpg
In a stone lithograph that was colored by hand with watercolors, the color will be flat with no dots. You may even be able to see brush strokes.

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