Guidelines to authenticate a Raja Ravi Varma lithograph

by Ganesh V Shivaswamy


Visit my Home Page on the prints of Raja Ravi Varma

There is one question that I have been asked most frequently: How does one know if a Ravi Varma lithograph is an original? Many persons have sent me photographs and I have sadly found more copies and fakes than originals. I have therefore compiled a list of guidelines to keep in mind when you go out in search of a Ravi Varma lithograph:

If you are shown an unframed print, look out for the following:

1. SIZE: The original prints came in following sizes only:

- 20x30 inches: Only a few prints were made in this very large size. I have seen only 3 prints made in this size: the Gangavatran, Mohini or the Temptress and the Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore

- 20x28 inches: Most religious prints were printed in this size: Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Vishnu Garud Vahan and even the birth of Shakuntala among several others

- 20x14 inches: This is the most common size

- The smaller prints came in 14x10 inches, 10x7 inches and 7x5 inches.

Remember, these sizes are different from the commercially available sizes today. If therefore, you are offered a print on a paper of an A4 size, the chances are it was colour xeroxed. I have also seen prints which were xeroxed in A4 sizes and pasted together- hence if you see pieces of paper pasted together, it's a copy.

2. PAPER: Ravi Varma prints were printed on paper suited to withstand the lithographic process. Hence, the paper is thicker. If you feel the paper, it would have a mild spongy and matte feel.

Keep in mind that these prints are now between 40 to 100 years old. Time does two things to paper: it becomes yellow/brown and it becomes brittle. Here is an example:

 The print on the left is authentic and the one on the right is a recent copy

 The reverse of the print- again the one on the left is brown with age and the new one on the right is a new white.

3. VARNISH: All the original prints were varnished after printing. My experience has been that prints from the FAL Press, Bombay were less varnished- they still have a matte appearance. The Karla Press prints were heavily dolloped with varnish and hence still retain their sheen. The later presses also heavily varnished their prints.

Over the years, varnish oxidizes. Exposure to light also results in varnish being oxidized. When varnish oxidizes, the varnish turns yellow and finally a tinge of brown or sepia. If you encounter a print with a healthy sepia tint, it's authentic. Sometimes, you may see a print which may have margins with a fresh color- this means the print was in a frame with a cutout mount placed over the edges of the print. Since light never fell over the margins, that varnish has remained intact and hence retains fresh color.

Here are examples of an original print with the margins of a different colour:

 If you observe the lower corners of the print you will notice a circular area of fresh colour- this is where the mount would have obscured the print when framed.

The upper margin has a strip of fresh blue.

4. OTHERS:

(a) Look out for marks made by the printing process, generally found on the margins.

(b) The reverse of the print could bear the stamp of the dealer.

(c) Ensure the description at the foot of the print matches the theme of the picture.

5. When buying a FRAMED picture, keep the following in mind:

(a) Most frames were backed by tinfoil or a wooden backing. Ensure the nails holding the foil are intact and have not been tampered with. Remember, hardboard is recent.

(b) Peer through the glass and see if there is a sediment of dust at the bottom of the frame. See if the corners of the frame are intact and not tampered with.

(c) A word of caution: Do not try and remove a lithograph from its frame. Over the years, the thick lithograph paper would have become brittle and any amateur attempt to remove or clean the print will end in the print being torn. A person had written to me with photographs of a treasure of Ravi Varma prints- all framed in their original German frames. Several weeks later, he had tried to remove the frames and every one of them was torn. In one fell swoop he had ruined lithographs worth lakhs of rupees- not to mention desecrating a treasured family heirloom.

(d) When buying an embellished or "Burma" print look for signs of glue. Glue over the years turns brown. You should be able to see lines of brown around the embellishment.

If you have any more questions do write in to ravi.varma.lithos@gmail.com