Sword Buying, part 1
If you are interested in nihonto – Japanese swords – you of course wonder where you can actually get blades. The first place is, rather obviously, from a dealer. Many can be found on the web, like Nihontocraft.com or Nihonto Antiques. The advantages of going to a dealer is you will be – or should be – dealing with a person who is knowledgeable and shares your interest in the subject; as I’ll describe below there are numerous pitfalls awaiting the novice buyer and going to a reputable dealer will protect you from being, well, swindled.
The downside of going to a dealer tends to be cost. As much as they love and appreciate swords, these people are not charities. They buy and sell unique and high-quality items, mostly for collectors. As you might expect dealers tend to emphasize high-end pieces because they generate the biggest returns. The prestige items for the dealers are swords rated juyo token – “important work” or “important sword”. This rating was established by the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK) which is the leading Japanese body which ranks and certifies swords. Juyo token typically sell for $75,000 and up. Dealers will have some less expensive items but it’s rare to see a dealer offering a good quality katana-length blade for less than $5,000.
Part of the cost is the “papering” – the NBTHK certification – that is done for most of these swords. Collectors very much want blades with paper. This process takes time – months – and carries costs in $1000s for fees and for travel to the sword-judging venues. And after all that, your sword may not be awarded a paper.
So, if you want to start collecting but don’t have $5000-$10,000 to get a blade from a collector, where do you go? Gun shows – euphemistically called “arms collector” shows – often feature swords. These shows happen all over the US – here’s a link to some in the northeast. While these shows are mostly about guns they tend to also have war memorabilia: German daggers and pistols, Japanese flags, and Japanese swords. The swords are invariably described as “bring backs” – i.e. a G.I. got the sword somehow and brought it back to the US. The cliché hope for sword aficionados is that Grandpa Frank found a national treasure sword on the battlefield, didn’t know what it was, and it’s been sitting in his attic ever since; now the grandkids are selling off his stuff and they give the sword – which in their younger days they may or may not have tried out on tree branches and the like – to a gun seller on consignment.
I haven’t been to a gun show in decades, but I did buy several blades at shows in Maryland way back when. One was an average quality gendaito – 20th century hand-made sword – that I used in Iaido practice for many years. Another was a better quality gendaito that I gave someone as a gift. Finally I purchased a few other “project” blades, of low or unknown quality, that maybe someday I’ll have restored. Back at this time – the 1980s – swords at gun shows were going for $100 – $500. Of course an advantage is you can see and feel the swords, and may even be able to do a little bargaining. The sellers at these shows tend not to be experts, though they may have a kind of rough-and-ready awareness of value for different pieces.
Nowadays, my impression is that pickings at these shows are slim. In decades past, the US buying public was not very large nor well educated. There were good quality swords out there and there was little awareness on part of the sellers how valuable they could be. Today there are sword societies in most major US cities and awareness of at least the basics is very widespread. I suggest that the novice visit such shows for nothing else other than building some market awareness, but don’t expect much more that low-quality gunto – machine-made army swords.
I’ve left the most treacherous for last: eBay. You might think that Japanese swords are the perfect item to sell on eBay: high value, with a distinctive set of attributes and a rich body of lore, but with a worldwide, very distributed audience. Surely it’s here where one can find access to the greatest variety, and to the best deals?
Well, yes and no. There is tremendous variety, but also tremendous risk. Here’s an example listing:
Collectable Antiques Handmade Japanese Military Katana/Sword tiger Signed
Starting bid: US $9.99
Japanese Katana were widely used in Japanese Army during the Second World War because of its Cutting Ability, Thrusting Ability, Guarding Capacity, Technical Versatility and so on.As Japanese Katana’s good performance …
Read more here if you like: Handmade-Japanese-Military-Katana-Sword-tiger-Signed
This item presents itself as an antique but it is not. It is newly manufactured junk, created in China. Here’s one of the pictures from the listing:
Notice the bizarre, ornate scabbard in the background? Whatever one might say about the Japanese military of WW II, their taste was not so atrociously garish. Also, look at the blade. Everyone knows that Japanese swords have a folded construction and that they display “grain” similar to that of damascus steel. The vendor wants you to see the grain in the blade and conclude, this must be the real thing. And only 10 bucks! This guy don’t know what he’s got …
What he’s hoping to get is a sucker. Here are some guides that will help the novice not fall for junk like this:
Now, things are not as bad as all that. Yes, the fakes are abundant, but, if you have a little experience with real nihonto, the fakes are instantly detectable. Here’s a photo of the real thing:
If you look closely you can detect some grain in this blade, but it is far finer than the crude grain in the fake. More importantly, the blade shows the hamon, or temper line, the cloudy area of hard steel on the edge of the blade that is the distinctive feature of the nihonto. The hamon is also something that can be faked – for example by acid etching or by selective wire-brushing – but something very hard to simulate is the “activity” in the hamon, the areas of different density or texture.
This example is also from eBay. My impression is dealers are using eBay more and more to offer stock of less interest to pure collectors, but that are still authentic nihonto and worthy of study and appreciation. Maybe if one could meet up with these vendors, you would have the best of both worlds. But if not, I think there is still reasonable opportunity to get good blades at reasonable prices.
Of this I have some direct experience. Next post: My blades lost, and won, on eBay.