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The great print works of ukiyo-e, by the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro, became fine art almost by accident. Originally mass produced for the popular market, their status was roughly equivalent to that of illustrated calendars and posters of pop stars today. But, ironically, the fact that they weren’t regarded as particularly valuable by the Japanese led them to be considered fine art abroad, as they were either discarded — increasing their rarity value — or exported to lands where their novelty and aesthetic merits gained them a keen following.

But the very ease with which print art can be reproduced meant that subsequent ukiyo-e always faced the danger of being cheapened by overproduction, which is exactly what had happened by the end of the 19th century.

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