by John J. Eliyas
I have been a student of Nihonto for ten years now, and I would say that qualifies me as a novice. I started with the usual Showa-to, which I still have, graduated to two oil tempered blades, and had my epiphany when I purchased a Koto tachi, signed Kunimune, at a garage sale for forty dollars.
Gradually, I have learned more about Nihonto, terminology, and relative
value. As my tastes change so did the realization that what I had collected
was not what I wanted. Many of the 'old salts' suggested that as collectors
we should cull our collections of lower quality swords, and invest in quality
art swords. This is a nice thought, but sometimes impractical. I have tried
to do just that. I sold my two oil tempered swords and purchased a mumei
wakizashi, mounted, and a mumei koto katana in shirasaya. These are certainly
not certificate pieces, but good study pieces. At this time my ability
to afford a polish for my Koto tachi, let alone buy $5000.00 art swords
is a strain, and the idea of acquiring quality pieces at a reasonable cost
is a definite challenge.
Over time I have learned that there exists a forum for collecting swords on the Internet. eBay Auctions provides a forum for people to sell items auction-style over the Internet. When I first typed in the search words "Japanese sword," lo and behold, 117 items for the picking.
Here is a breakdown of what I found:
With "Japanese Sword" as the search parameter we get 117 hits.
|Traditional Swords: Gendai, Shin-shinto, Shinto, Koto||20|
|WWII, Machine, Oil temper||21|
|Tsuba and Fittings||21|
|Replicas and Junk||46|
We have a disproportionate number of replicas, letter openers, and other
junk as I classify it that comes up on the search. A collector of traditional
Nihonto and Tsuba only has 41 out of 117 items to consider. If I modify
the search, it gets worse:
With "Samurai Sword" as the search parameter we get 165 hits.
|Traditional Swords: Gendai, Shin-shinto, Shinto, Koto||10|
|WWII, Machine, Oil temper||1|
|Tsuba and Fittings||7|
|Replicas and Junk||146|
Older, traditionally made swords that appear on eBay are in need of
serious repair. What I mean by this is at the very least a polish. These
older swords are often misrepresented by the seller as in "good shape."
Rarely are chips in the ha, hagiri, or even the hamon running off in the
kissaki mentioned. The best sword descriptions I have seen on eBay are
those put up by Fred Weissberg.
It is also unfortunate that the seller of these older swords has a reserve
that is disproportionate to the value of the piece. A mumei wakizashi,
in extremely poor polish and in shirasaya, an overall nondescript piece
had a reserve of $1000.00. I have seen mumei wak's in much better shape
go for $400-$800.
By and large having Japanese Swords on eBay serves several purposes.
Many of these swords will go to beginning collectors, or martial artists,
albeit for a much higher price than through a reputable dealer, or even
a gun show. This forum allows beginners to purchase Nihonto at a premium.
Many of us do not have ready access to shows, dealers, or sword clubs.
eBay becomes a necessary evil. It also becomes an opportunity for learning.
We can usually look at the pictures provided (though sometimes this is
difficult due to the quality) and translate a mei, examine the shape and
style of the blade, and give our opinions as to the veracity of the seller
in describing the blade.
It is easy to become caught in the frenzy of buying and selling. I posted
my two oil-tempered blades hoping to sell them for not much more than I
had in them. Where I had bidders for these swords, neither reached the
reserve price. I eventually sold them to a local dealer for 20% more than
I had in them. I would say that the profit one realizes is proportional
to the flowery prose used in the description of the item. Baffle them with
bull**** and they will scramble to place a bid. One could describe a blade
Sukesade Katana from the Satsuma Rebellion!
Here is a wonderful piece, look at the beautiful hakobore in the
ha. It is extremely rare for a katana to have this much hagiri in the activity.
Look at the nie, look at nioi. The signature is almost certainly gimei!
Note the chips in the mune, almost certainly this sword was used in combat
against other Samurai! In Gunto mounts. Low reserve of only $1500.00. Buyer
pays with money order, sword as is, no return policy.
Of course I am being facetious. There are certainly some sellers who
describe their piece in exquisite detail, noting all the flaws as such,
and offering the piece at a fair price, but one must wade through an awful
lot of auctions to find this exception to the rule.
What have we learned from this rambling dissertation? For those that
are more experienced, fortunate to attend a large show, or be affiliated
with a study group, eBay should be considered a diversion, a place for
spectacle. For those not fortunate to be part of the above-mentioned activities
I would only say caveat emptor. Even the martial artist buying a
WWII blade that is obviously machine made will probably pay a premium higher
than the local gun show.
Occasionally, the collector will find the diamond in the rough, but
these are extremely rare. Many collectors are wont to say that the days
of the garage sale find are over. Well, maybe I was lucky to find an out
of polish tachi in an old barrel, and maybe that will never happen again...but
I still look.
John J. Eliyas lives and works in Pittsburgh. He has been studying Nihonto for ten years and first became interested in swords while in Graduate School. This is his first foray into writing about his passion.