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Nihonto and eBay

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.

 Bizen Kunimune           Mine


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
Books 8
Other 1
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
Books 0
Other 1
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 as such:

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.