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"Original woodblock" prints by E.M. Washington: an art scam


An exciting find seemed to have appeared on the market recently, concerning the estate of an unknown printmaker, Earl M. Washington. This find was described as follows:

Earl M. Washington (1862-1952) was an African-American master wood-engraver and printer who between the early 1900s and the time of his death had amassed and printed from one of the largest collections of artists' wood blocks in the United States. Washington's career began at the age of 13, when he was apprenticed at a Southern printing shop. In 1880 Washington moved to New York, but encountered racial and social prejudice which barred him from employment at the larger printing shops in the city. Eventually finding a position in a small shop on the Lower East Side, Washington went on to perfect his skills as a master printer.

Washington's collection of wood blocks began accidentally, with blocks collected from the fire-ravaged print shop of a fellow-carver and friend. As he continued his printing work, Washington's circle of acquaintanceship widened, and he began to receive blocks from many different artists and publishers. These included the work of Hale Woodruff, (1900-1980) whom Washington met and befriended; Eric Gill, Lynd Ward, Rockwell Kent, M. C. Escher, Robert Gibbings, and others. Washington printed impressions for each of the wood engraved blocks in his collection, and in some instances, he used the designs of other artists to create new engraved blocks.

It turns out that this "find" was the result of an elaborate scam perpetrated by this printmaker's supposed great-grandson, also named Earl M. Washington. The evidence is overwhelming that even if the first E.M. Washington did exist and was a printmaker (both uncertain), he was neither the maker nor printer of these prints. Instead it is clear that the maker of these prints is the current E.M. Washington, who made "original" woodblock copies of prints by the famous printmakers who were supposed to be the friends of his alleged great-grandfather. Each of these prints is signed "E.M. Washington," which though said to be by the great-grandfather is certainly the signature of the great-grandson, and they are dated with dates when they were supposed to be printed, a clear misrepresentation.

Although this collection is the product of this art scam, the prints are most interesting in that history. The eagerness with which they were initially accepted speaks to the growing modern interest in the work of early African-American artists and artisans. Though we know now that they not what they seemed, these prints are still very good "original" copies of some very fine wood block prints, especially those of African-American figures and subjects.

Modern prints by E.M. Washington, Jr., after various artists. Woodcuts. All ca. 7 x 5. All in excellent condition unless otherwise noted.


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©The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd. Last updated October 30, 2019