Identifying Antique Engravings and Determining Their Values

Published June 29, 2022
antique engraved artwork decor at home office desk

With their beautiful designs and gorgeous detail, antique engravings are as lovely today as when they were made. These prints were especially popular during the 19th century, and many fine examples survive. They can be an affordable and lovely way to decorate your walls with a historic touch, and some antique engravings are even quite valuable.

How to Identify Antique Engravings

engraving of Plymouth Rock

Engravings are made with a printing process developed over 500 years ago. To create an engraving, a metal plate is engraved or etched with a design. Craftspeople can then apply ink to the plate and use a press to stamp the design onto a sheet of paper. The picture can be quite intricate, and the metal plate can be used many times before the details start to degrade. This was a popular method of mass-producing art over the centuries, and you can find old engravings of all kinds of subjects.

How to Determine if a Print Is an Engraving

You can tell if an engraving is real and not another type of print by examining it. Pick up a magnifying glass and look for the following clues:

  • Distinct lines - An engraving is made of many lines, and areas of shading are constructed by several small lines arranged together. If you look closely, you'll see these lines.
  • Texture - Antique engravings were made by using lots of pressure to push the metal plate onto the paper. If you feel the surface, you will notice that the printed areas are lower than the unprinted paper around them.
  • No pixels - When you look at an engraving with a magnifying glass, you won't see any tiny dots of pixels that come from printing with a printing press or computer printer. The ink will be continuous.

Some people use the terms "etching" and "engraving" interchangeably, but the main difference between engravings and etchings is how they are made. While engravers use tools to cut a metal plate, etchers use acid to create a design. On the print, etching shows up as softer shaded areas.

How to Tell if the Engraving Is an Antique

antique engraving of conifers

Once you know something is an engraving, the next step is to get a sense for its age. To be considered an antique, an engraving must be at least 100 years old. If it's newer than that, it's considered vintage instead. There are a few ways to tell an antique engraving from a modern example:

  • Printing - Just as you have to examine the print in detail to identify an engraving, you can also use the printing style to tell you if it is old. Many reproduction engravings are made using a photomechanical process, such as scanning an old engraving and reprinting it on a modern printer. Look for tiny dots or pixels to indicate it wasn't actually engraved.
  • Margins - If the print is large enough to have margins, look for signs where the edge of a metal plate was pressed into the paper. Wider margins can offer a clue about the age.
  • Signatures and dates - Many reproduction antique engravings feature signatures and dates, but it's easy to check these by looking up the piece to see if the names and dates seem correct.
  • Paper - Expect older paper to show a patina, which is difficult to fake in a new reproduction. The edges may show wear, and there may be lighter areas where the piece was framed and exposed to sunlight. You may also see water spots or signs of damage.

Understanding Antique Engraving Values

Antique engravings can be quite valuable, but there's a great deal of variation. They range in price from under $25 for a small piece to many thousands of dollars for a large and rare engraving.

Factors Affecting the Value of Engravings

There are a number of factors that can affect how much antique engravings are worth, including the following:

  • Subject - Because an engraving is meant to be displayed, certain subjects are especially in demand. These include botanicals, birds, holiday scenes, and landscapes.
  • Size - Larger engravings tend to be worth more than smaller examples, all other factors being equal.
  • Beauty - Engravings with beautiful detail, colored inks, and pretty subjects tend to be worth more, since these pieces can be displayed.
  • Condition - Rips, stains, and other damage can detract from the value of an engraving. Those in good condition are worth more.
  • Artist - Engravings by noted artists are worth more, especially if they are signed.
  • Rarity - Rare engravings are more valuable. They may be part of a limited printing series, or they may be very old with few known copies existing.

Sold Values for Engravings

The best way to know what your antique engraving is worth is to have it appraised. However, only the most valuable antique engravings will justify the cost of the appraisal. You can get a general sense for the value of your engraving by comparing it to similar examples that have recently sold.

You can also check online price guides for listed values of similar engravings. It's important to make sure the factors affecting the value are as close as possible to the engraving you have.

Decorate Your Walls With History

Old engravings offer a great way to use antique wall decorations to give your home a sense of historic beauty. These pieces were meant to be displayed, so you can enjoy them much as people have for centuries.

Identifying Antique Engravings and Determining Their Values