Investing in Japanese Swords: My personal opinions and advice
As more and more of the baby-boomers get to the age where they are bored with the average, junky, crappy collectables commonly found everywhere, they are looking for something better. They are looking for something more interesting; with history, quality, and beauty; worthy of their attention, interest, and time.
Good Japanese swords are expensive because they command the prices they bring from an eager group of serious collectors. Japanese swords stand out from all other collectables, in that they combine many attributes which few other objects can compare. Examining a good sword brings pleasure. It is seeing the God-given talent of man manifested in a physical form. It's hard to imagine how these swordsmiths could develop such amazing weapons, with so little to work with. All they had was some raw iron ore, wood, water, clay and stones. From these simple elements, they could create a blade which had no equal, that was also an object of beauty.
Japanese swords have many inherent characteristics which are interesting and impressive. Old Japanese swords are from a world which is long gone. I can only imagine how much courage samurai warriors must have had to face another warrior. Both men, armed with almost indestructible three-foot razor blades, which were light as a feather!
Fine Japanese swords require great skill, talent and effort to make. The beauty in the forging and tempering is tied in with the great skill and talent of the swordsmiths who produced them. The wonderful condition of many of these old swords is tied to the culture of Japan itself. The thoughtful care and dedication to protect these amazing weapons is a reflection of the Japanese reverance for these sacred objects.
Many collectors don't know this, but in the early koto period, it took an incredible amount of work to produce a single sword. The average Japanese man couldn't afford to buy a good sword, which in today's money, could cost an equivalent of $250,000.00. It is no wonder so many of the old swords were preserved in wonderful condition over the centuries.
Buying on eBay and internet auction sites:
There is a lot of risk buying Japanese swords on all the internet auction sites.
Most sellers offer their swords for sale as-is, so you can't hold them responsible when a blade with a flaw arrives in the mail.
These problem blades are normally easy to identify. They will usually be offered with a few out of focus photos, and a seller which claims "I know nothing!", and they will not make any guarantees. These swords are normally offered at auction, accompanied by a disclaimer informing you that the sword is being sold AS-IS.
I have seen eBay bidders pay big prices for average swords and blades with fake papers or new reproductions coming out of China.
It is foolish to bid high prices on swords based on a few out of focus photos, without any guarantee, in hopes of finding a National Treasure.
Needless to say, most of these "winning bidders" end up buried in a junk blade, and walk away quietly, ashamed of their foolish buying decision, and licking their financial wounds.
If you want to gamble, and can afford to spend a few thousand dollars on a crap shoot, I would recommend you make a trip to Las Vegas before I would advise bidding on a blade based on a story, a few out of focus photos, and the hope that there is nothing wrong with the blade.
If you want to invest your money wisely, and get a blade worthy of your time and efforts to study, get a freshly polished and papered blade.
If you allow yourself to take a significant financial beating, you may lose
interest in these wonderful historic works of art.
which may have otherwise added to the quality of your life.
It is best to invest hard earned money in fine Japanese swords of quality, which are in good condition, and have solid value. These are the blades worth your time and effort to study.
If you are a new collector, I recommend you start by buying books, and attending sword shows. Make some new friends, and get familiar with the attributes of a good sword before considering opening your wallet. Only then can you really appreciate and enjoy a fine sword. I remember advice given to me many years ago by Richard S. He said, "You will learn more by looking at a few really good blades than you will by looking at hundreds of average blades". This is where attending the sword shows becomes really important. It is essential to see and handle fine blades first, and only then, when you have learned what makes a blade special, are you really ready to purchase a fine art sword.
Investing Wisely in Fine Japanese Swords:
If you can afford to invest your most precious commodity, your time, I recommend taking the wise financial path. Invest in a properly polished, and reliable papered blade. The preferred papers are issued by the NBTHK in Japan, or the NTHK here in the US.
The NBTHK papers are held in the highest regard. To obtain them requires that the blade is sent to Japan for an in-depth examination by a panel of qualified experts. The papers awarded by the NBTHK are based on a consensus of the entire panel of experts. Attributions made by the NBTHK are the most respected in the world.
Mr. Yoshikawa of the NTHK, also provides authentication papers for fine Japanese swords. These papers are also respected, but the examination is done by one recognized expert who has time limitations and limited reference materials at hand. He will not have equal time to do the same in-depth analysis that the NBTHK does. However, his evaluation is excellent, and serves to clearly identify the better blades. The NTHK papers normally include a time period in which the blade was made, which is always appreciated.
Buying Swords at Japanese Sword Shows:
There are some very strict unspoken rules at Japanese sword shows which everyone is expected to know and adhere to.
I strongly recommend visiting Col. Dean Hartley's Japanese sword website, to read what he has to say.
You will also find that his site is exceptionally well written, fun, interesting and informative.
Col. Dean Hartley was the founder of the Japanese Sword Society in 1948, and is a wealth of information. If you get a chance to attend an upcoming sword show, you will usually see him there. He is one of the few living legends, and a true gentleman.
Much can be learned from Col. Hartley and his website. If you are a newer collector of fine Japanese swords, or if you just want to be entertained, then visiting his website should be at the top of your list.
- Learning how to handle a sword safely, so that you do not endanger yourself, those around you, or the blade. There is a lot of information on this subject available on the internet. Failure to adhere to these standards, will get you rudely removed from the show . These standards are not taken lightly. You could seriously injure yourself or someone else, or even be arrested for manslaughter! These things have happened, so always exercise care, and go over the basics of sword handling periodically so they are fresh in your mind. Also, remember to remain aware at all times. In the evenings some participants may relax with a drink. If you start drinking, don't handle swords!
- Once you do buy a blade, it's yours! If it's a National Treasure, you have made a great discovery, and it's yours to keep. If you discover a fatal flaw you did not see, it's also yours. So realize that once you have pulled out your wallet, and paid for a sword, the deal is done. Don't go crying to anyone, as no one wants to hear about it.
- If you get to a table, and see the sword you want in someone else's hands, it is their option to try to buy it until they put it down, and their hands have been removed from the tang.
- Never talk smack about someone else's blades or fittings. They are there to make money and sell swords.
Once you have learned what is expected of those who attend a Japanese sword show, you are ready to plan your trip. The promoters of each show can provide you with information to make your trip fun and easy.
Believe it or not, some of my best buys have been made at one of a handful of Japanese sword shows which are held annually in various cities in the United States. There are regular shows held in Tampa, Florida in February; Chicago, Illinois in April; San Francisco every August. On occasion there are also shows in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May and New York, when announced.
Most of the better blades I have found at shows were purchased directly from dealers and collectors, who have regularly sold at the sword shows for many years. In the past, I had assumed these sellers would let a better blade slip through their fingers, I have made many good buys from them, so you won't have your fair chance at finding these good blades if you don't go to the shows!
Buying Swords Through Local Advertisements: A reason to answer my phone!
I recommend every Japanese sword collector periodically places ads in their local newspapers offering to buy Japanese swords. You never know when a really beautiful sword in wonderful condition will surface for pennies on the dollar!
I have had many great buys, and have lots of happy memories of sword discoveries, some of which you can read about on my "Sword Stories" page.
There are swords out there in the hands of people who do not know how to properly care for them.
Your odds of finding a missing National Treasure are not good... about the same as winning the lottery, but, on the other hand, you may come across some interesting old blades and fittings for your collection, and at bargain prices.
You do need to be cautious as many swords are not what they first appear to be. I have found that many of the swords that look like they are fresh out of the woodwork, have already been examined and rejected by the old timers who saw them many years ago.
Keep in mind that these old timers were sifting out the better blades when they placed their ads in local newspapers offering to buy Japanese swords many years ago. Had these swords been anything special, the vast majority would have been snapped up sometime in the last 60+ years.
I have found that most of the better swords that I have turned up were in the possession of the families who had a relative bring them back from the war, or from someone who got it from the family. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these swords were nothing special to begin with.
I am happy to report that a few good blades still do occasionally surface, and the ones I have found over the last 10 years are here on my website.
Unfortunately these few better blades, make up only a tiny percentage of a dwindling supply, and even that, is rapidly drying up.