Few weeks back I posted some basics on buying Japanese swords – nihonto. I closed that by citing both dangers and opportunities for prospective collectors who buy on eBay. Well, I have bought a few swords on eBay and made a new purchase earlier this month. Here’s my experience in the hopes it will provide some guideposts for others.
All told I’ve bought 6 swords on eBay. Here’s the summary list:
|2||2008||Shin-Shinto katana, “Kaneyoshi”. nagasa 27”, seller: fastcashpawnshop||$500|
|3||2011||Shin-Shinto katana, mumei, slight kizu near tip, seller: sewingtammy1976||$350|
|4||2012||Koto wakizashi, signed (smith unknown) nagasa 18”. 1 bid auction. seller: awesome-japan||$455|
|5||2012||Koto katana, “Bishu Osafune Sukesada”, nagasa 26” 22 bid auction. seller: hoanhvu||$1,275|
|6||2013||Shinto katana, “Tsunamune”, nagasa 27.4” 32 bid auction. seller: komonjo||$2,325|
The Chinese fake is good quality (for a fake) that I use as an iaito. The main thing this list shows – aside from my tastes getting more expensive over time – is the difference in prices from sellers. The sellers for swords 4 – 6 are dealers in nihonto and Japanese antiques. They are very well monitored on eBay and their auctions tend to get a lot of action. I’m not sure why no one but me bid on sword #4. The quality and condition were good. This just may be an example of a listing getting missed.
Swords #2 and #3 are examples you want to emulate if you can. These came from sellers that are mostly inactive in selling swords; fastcashpawnshop is exactly that, it sells anything people bring in on consignment, while sewingtammy1976 sells sword-related stuff but at a very low rate. Sellers like these often don’t know how to list their items and may set reserves that are low. Sword #2, that I posted about here, in particular was a great buy. If you can find listings like these, and you’re satisfied with what you see, go for it.
Sword #5 illustrates one of the dangers you have to contend with doing this kind of purchase. Here’s the description from the original listing:
SIGNED *KOTO* WW2 Officer’s Samurai Sword in Samurai Mounts – 500 years old
A very old ancestral blade (~500 years old) was remounted and taken to war. The nakago is in great condition with a very nice patina. The mei reads “Bishu Osafune Sukesada.” This sword smith was very prolific and was active in around 1492, according to HAWLEY. The blade has minor nicks but is still very, very sharp.There is one hair kizu typical of blades of this age. … The blade appears to be ubu (original shape) and shows a graceful Koto suguta (shape) with a deep curvature. Overall, the blade is in *EXCELLENT* condition, as are the mountings.
“Koto” means “old sword” – a sword that was made before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600. That and the other terminology indicate the seller knows something about nihonto. Together with his admission of the kizu – flaw – we’re expected to have confidence in this listing. He doesn’t really tell all you might want to know about Sukesada, though. “Very prolific” means he was a mass-producing smith of the time; there were many Sukesadas active in the late Koto period and their ratings are mostly not very high. Anyway here’s one of the listing pictures:
I really liked the curvature of this sword, which is typical for koto blades, and I wanted to own a sword of this period. So I went ahead and won a 22 bid auction. Receiving the sword, however, I found what “very, very sharp” actually meant: This blade has been ground on the very edge. The hamon is still there and the ground area is very thin – a few mms – but this is not how a nihonto should be maintained. I believe someone wanted to see how well this sword could cut, so they “helped” it by updating the edge.
Now, I don’t think the damage is fatal. A togishi – a sword-polisher – should be able to restore it. However these older swords can be “tired” – not having much outer metal left – and can only be polished so many times.
So, live and learn. I still very much like this sword. The heft and dynamics of it are extremely different from my later period swords, and I’m not doing this to make money.
I think the most helpful thing for folks may be to hear about auctions I didn’t win. For every sword in the list above I have bid on easily 5 or more others. Here’s some examples:
Japanese sword in mountings, shinshinto "Hizen Masahiro" 27+1/8" v-5
Bidding started 27 Feb at $100 and ended 6 March at $2,035. On around 2 March I bid $900, but even then I knew it would go higher. This was a very nice blade, but I already have 2 swords of this period. There were 24 bids altogether; here’s the final action:
The final bid was entered 4 secs. before the auction ended, by a buyer who had not bid at all up to that point. Almost all the auctions, the majority of the price happens in the final day; it’s easy to be top-bidder early on, like I was with my measly $900.
Japanese Samurai Sword: Bizen Osafune Munemitsu Koto Katana
This was a nice koto sword. The auction went from 12 Feb to 17 Feb. I bid early but did not follow-up; I expected the price would go out of my range. And it did: the winning bid was $3,300 which, oddly, was set some 8 hrs before the auction ended, again by someone who had not bid at all before. There were only 3 bidders active in the end-game, and I suppose they lost desire/interest to bid more.
When you look at these bidders you will see most bid on nothing but swords, or on Oriental collectibles in general. Like anything on eBay, it is hard to tell if they are real bidders or shills.
Japanese Samurai Sword: Gendaito Shoda Masafusa 77.5 cm
This was a 20th century sword, forged in 1975 by a smith who had been active in WW II. Its length – the cutting edge, or nagasa, was over 30” – made this a more attractive blade.
The auction here went 13 Feb to 18 Feb. I got in first for $675 on 14 Feb, and upped to $1,400 on 17 Feb. this was literally a ”brand new” sword, an example of modern day technique where blades are made only incidentally for their cutting function and almost entirely for aesthetic achievement. There were 31 bids on this one, with 10-12 separate bidders. Winning bid was $1,925, made in the closing seconds, again by someone who had not bid before.
Ok, now here’s the sword I just won:
Japanese Samurai Sword: Tsunamune Katana 69.7 CM
This is a sword from the Shinto period – roughly 1600 to 1764. I liked what I saw in the photos; this is a “healthy” sword of good length and solid proportions. Winning bid was $2,325, which I – like several of the cases above – entered in final 2 secs. My opponent in this auction seemed to be German; in any event in their bid history they had a lot of activity on “Kleidung & Accessoires > Schuhe für Jungen”, which Google Translate tells me is “Apparel & Accessories> Boys Shoes”. (What kind of shoes do you wear in Germany when wielding your Japanese sword, I wonder?)
Would I have gone higher? Looking at the sword and the history, I had set my mental limit of $2,500. Had my Teutonic counterpart exceeded that, right now he or she would be writing this blog.
So ends the long saga of my eBay nihonto adventures. If you wish to buy, my advice to you comes down to this:
Start by bidding low on a lot of auctions and then follow them to the end, so you get a sense of the prices in the market.
Know what you want. Don’t bid on any sword; pick an era, a type, a smith, and try to pursue that.
Know your price and stick to it. There are many sword-fish in the proverbial sword-sea; don’t get too attached to winning any particular one.
Do lots of searches. Obvious keywords are “katana”, “samurai”, “japan” and “sword”. Use the advanced option that let’s you choose items located in a particular country; eliminate items that come from China. Every once in a while do searches outside “Antiques > Asian Antiques > Japan > Swords”, you may hit that rare listing from a seller who doesn’t normally deal in swords.
DO NOT EXPECT MIRACLES. The whole point of these swords is that each one is unique, a tool that someone made long ago for a deadly purpose that nowadays we appreciate for their craftsmanship and for their ability to “open a window”, as it were, to a time, place and a people. Don’t expect to get rich or to find a treasure sword. The best you can hope for is to find a sword you yourself can connect with.
Till next time …