My Sword Learning Journey
I have been buying and selling all forms of antiques, art and collectibles since the late 1960s. I have been actively looking for Japanese swords since the late 1980s.
My life long interest in antiques and art gave me the foundation to understand the significance of specialized characteristics in evaluating many different kinds of items.
This background of examining antiques and art, made it possible for me to learn to evaluate Japanese swords in a logical methodical way. This has made me very aware, of just how complicated, and awe inspiring, these works of art really are. There is no other work of art that has captured my attention, challenged my intellect, or consumed me so completely, as fine Japanese swords.
After almost 20 years of actively buying and selling Japanese swords, I am still amazed by them. The more I study, the more I realize how much more I have to learn. There are many sword dealers and collectors with 40 to 50+ years of experience, to whom I am grateful for sharing their time and knowledge with me.
When I first became aware of Japanese swords, I went to the public library looking for books in English, and discovered that they were almost non-existent. I remember I was only allowed to use the reference books within the library building. I ended up photocopying two or three thin, old books, which even after carefully reading several times, didn't help me to understand how to recognize a better blade.
I also found the local sword buyers rather tight lipped. All they wanted from me was a phone call when I found a sword, and a price to buy them.
When I did find an interesting old sword, no one wanted to make me an offer for fear I would say no and offer it to the next buyer for $50 more.
Everyone wanted me to price my own swords. If I asked too much, they explained I was out of my mind and hammered me down. If I guessed too low, they snapped them up fast, complaining that they were paying too much as they pulled out their wallets. After they paid me, they were usually gone in less than 60 seconds.
I wanted to learn more about these beautiful and deadly weapons, and wanted to get higher prices too. Around 1990 I heard about the San Francisco sword show. I called one of the promoters and explained that I was a long time antique dealer, and had a long history of selling at some of the best antique shows held in southern California. I explained that I had accumulated quite a pile of genuine antique Japanese swords which I wanted to sell, and wanted to bring them to the San Francisco sword show.
I was able to secure a seller's table for the sword show, which was to be held later that year. I put out the word locally that I wanted to buy Japanese Swords, and made sure all my antique dealer friends knew I was actively seeking them. Steadily, I began building up a pile of fresh, "out of the woodwork" swords.
I took my first load of 25-30 swords to the San Francisco sword show in 1991. I remember the crowd that formed around my table, and it was a mad house for almost an hour. Everyone was grabbing my swords, and asking "how much... How Much ...HOW MUCH!!! ". I remember shouting out prices from about $300 for short tantos, to around $1500 for my very best fancy long swords. Swords were flying off my table, and guys were shoving handfuls of hundred dollar bills in my face. Two hours later, I had one or two crappy swords left, and the show had not even opened to the public! I was happy because I had a wad of cash that could choke a team of horses, but also knew I had made some mistakes.
I would have a group of guys at my table. Then when certain swords were sold they would all leave, following the guy who had bought some of my swords. They were off in a corner...standing in lines, taking turns examining the the swords that I had sold to their friends.
I later saw several of the swords I had sold, repriced at several times what I had sold them for, on other sellers' show tables.
I was determined to learn more, and continued buying Japanese swords whenever I could find them. I then sold them at the sword shows, guessing at the values with no real basis for pricing. I usually sold everything I brought, and made really good profits, and a few too many friends!
I started buying all the books I could get my hands on, and reading them. As time went on, I felt even more lost. The expensive taikans which I had purchased for over $1000.00 each, were almost useless to me. I was told that the fakers had used these same books as references when they put fake signatures on tangs! I also encountered so many unfamiliar Japanese sword terms, with names I couldn't even pronounce, much less understand, that I made little progress.
Even to this day, most kanji still remains a time consuming challenge to translate. Many of the specialized sword terms, which are used to describe tiny characteristics, can be different, when they vary in size, appearance, name, or location on the blade.
I tried to absorb an overwhelming amount of information, but had no way to put it all into context, so I did not retain much practical information.
I explained this to a number of senior collectors and dealers who were considered the most knowledgeable and were well respected by the majority of dealers whom I got to know.
One piece of advice which I heard numerous times was, to look at and handle the best blades I could get my hands on, to study them closely, and to ask questions.
If you plan to buy fine Japanese swords for their beauty and/or as a wise investment, you should go to all the sword shows you can. This will give you an opportunity to closely inspect all the best blades that you can.
Click Shows to view a schedule of sword shows.
I decided to start attending all the Japanese sword shows that I could to learn more, and to sell off the Japanese swords and related items which I had found.
At first, I was very timid about handling other sellers' blades, because most of them knew that I had no intention of buying from them.
Most sellers were very nice and shared information, a lot of which I didn't understand. I would try to make mental notes of key words and phrases, and look them up later in my books. This was very helpful over time.
Other sellers were less helpful, and I could sense they didn't want me wasting their time, or touching their valuable swords.
Early on I became aware that some sword dealers were quite concerned about my lack of proper sword handling etiquette. With one careless move, I was publicly humiliated for failing to adhere to acceptable sword handling methods. I had unknowingly exposed the blade to possible damage, and nearby people, to possible injury.
Although this was quite embarrassing at the time, I later realized how important basic sword handling etiquette is, not only for the sake of preventing possible damage to the blade, but also, so that no one nearby, could be injured by carelessness.
To this day, I try to always remember to adhere to the accepted sword handling methods.