Once in a while, you may find yourself holding an authentic piece of ephemera wondering to yourself if this is the real deal or just a copy. Validating your legitimate item of ephemera can be an exciting process. Who knows, you may be holding onto something much more valuable than you previously thought!

How to authenticate your ephemera begins with identifying the print type, the date of printing, and other helpful indicators.

Whether you are selling or collecting ephemera, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different types of prints. With further inspection and practice, you’ll find yourself better able to pick out valuable pieces. These next steps are helpful to your becoming a confident buyer and seller.

Identify the Printing Process

Luckily, you don’t need much to identify the printing process of a certain piece of ephemera. A simple magnifying glass of at least 50x power will do. Ephemera can include relief prints, to lithography prints and everything in between. To keep this to the point, I have provided simple characteristics to help you identify the print. Knowing the type of print of your piece can help you know if you’re dealing with a copy or vintage item.

Relief Prints

This process is done by adding ink to a print block, except for the recessed areas, and then pressing the block to the paper. This is what we often think of when we contemplate early printing techniques.

Relief prints can be identified under a microscope or magnifying glass by the darker rim around the edge of the letters. This is the primary characteristic that sets them apart. When the block is pressed down on the paper, the excess ink runs to the edges of the block creating this effect.

Woodblock Prints

These are a type of relief prints which consist of wooden blocks that are carved out, inked, and then pressed on paper. Same technique, just with wood. This type of printing originated in China as early as 220 AD but quickly spread throughout Europe and other areas. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodblock_printing)

Woodblock prints can also be identified by the way they often look like the wood has been scooped out to create white space. They aren’t often very detailed but contain simple-looking lines. Woodblock prints were more popularly used during the 1700s and 1800s to create books, posters, and other documents. Knowing the era of the print is most helpful in identifying these types of prints.

Wood-engraving Prints

Wood-engravings replaced woodblock prints near the mid-1800s because they were often faster to create. This type of print also results in more detailed pictures and was used in newspapers and other ephemera.

To identify this type of print, check again for the darker ink lines around the edges. Unlike woodblock prints, the lines in this type of print will be much finer. Identifying the date of the print will help designate the type of print. These were mostly used in the mid to late 1800s.

Photoengraving Prints

This type of printing was used during the 1890s to the mid-1900s. Photoengraving prints are done using a pattern of dots to create a realistic photo. Under a microscope, this type of print is identified by almost waffle-like dot images. Because this is also a type of relief print, viewing this type of print under a microscope will show darker lines around the edges of the ink.

Intaglio Prints

This type of printing is done using a metal plate that includes recesses filled with the ink. This is opposite to relief prints which involve putting the ink on the blocks, instead of in the holes. Intaglio prints require a lot of pressure to get the ink to the paper from the recessed holes.

These type of prints are most identifiable by the plate mark that is often around the edge of the picture. It’s almost like an indented border that goes around the entire printing which was caused by pressing the plate down so hard.

Another way to identify this type of print is if it has raised ink levels. Because the ink is filled into the parts of the plate which have been removed, it often ends up raised from the paper. This is especially apparent where the ink is supposed to be darker. These include engravings and etchings.

Color Lithography

This technique was used to create most postcards, tobacco cards, and movie posters between the 19th and 20th centuries. Color lithography includes both handmade prints where the artist etches the print on the plate or dot lithography which is a more modern technique.

The handmade prints can most be identified by the fact that they look like watercolor paintings. Stipple dots, small dots used for shading, are also a key indicator that the item is a lithograph print.

For up close pictures of the different types of prints, check out Identifying Antique Commercial Printing Processes.

Identify the Date of Printing

This goes along with identifying the printing process. If you know the date, you can guess the general printing process. If you know the printing process, you can estimate the date of printing. A lab test done by an expert can pinpoint the date range of a specific print. Here’s a great site to direct you to an expert.

Knowing the date of a print will be incredibly helpful when authenticating your ephemera.

Identify Other Indicators

Rusty staples are also a key indicator that the item you’re dealing with is truly antique. Sometimes the rust has even run onto the paper. Another thing to look for when authenticating ephemera is how brittle the paper is. The test of time does make its appearance on vintage pieces of ephemera. When buying so-called authentic ephemera, be wary of items that look new or have clean staples.


Be careful when going in to buy an authentic and therefore expensive piece of ephemera. Make sure you can look at the item in person and with a magnifying glass. In this way, you’ll be sure that the printing process dates back to the time of printing the seller claims. With these simple tips to gaging how authentic an article of ephemera is, you’ll be a much more confident buyer and seller.

Be sure to check out A Guide to Buying Expensive Ephemera for more tips on purchasing these valuable items!