The Great Teasure Hunt!
Japan opened it's doors to the world in the late 19th century, and trade began. Japan started importing products which most Japanese people had never seen, and started exporting Japanese products of all kinds.
At the time, many old feudal families in Japan had fallen on hard times and were selling their family treasures (including swords and fittings) to raise money.
Many fine swords and fittings started arriving in America, and made their way into private collections. Some of the finest collections in the United States were assembled during this time, and were later donated to museums like the Boston Museum of fine arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others.
This was the first time fine Japanese swords were brought into the US, and wealthy American collectors were introduced to these amazing works of art.
The events which played out during and after WWII, created one of the least known about, but greatest of all the treasure hunts in US history. At the end of the war in the Pacific, the US forces occupied Japan, and orders were issued to disarm Japan. All kinds of weapons were confiscated, and many were destroyed. Initially there was no distinction made regarding the types of weapons to be confiscated, so everything was taken, and unfortunately many valuable swords were destroyed by the occupying forces.
Fortunately, through the extraordinary efforts of Dr. Junji Homma, the fact that some of the swords were ancient works of art by famous sword smith's, came to the attention to the authority's, and changes in the confiscation decree were made.
The decree to disarm Japan was amended to exclude recognized art swords. Most swords had been in the possession of private familys for many generations, and were scattered all over Japan. Many of these old swords contained blades which had not been examined by sword experts in hundreds of years, so they were not officially recognized as special, and were not protected by the new decree.
Most of the swords which were not destroyed, were brought to the US by returning servicemen, and later by many people including doctors and dentists, who had gone to Japan to participate in the relief efforts after the war.
Many of the beautiful swords found in the US today, which are in pristine condition, were given to Americans by Japanese citizens, in appreciation for their kind assistance to their people during a most difficult time in Japan's history.
For the handful of knowledgeable sword enthusiasts, who recognized the characteristics which made a blade great, and understood the monetary value of the important Japanese art swords, the treasure hunt had already began.
They knew that hidden within the mountain of confiscated weapons, that there were historically important swords, that were scattered all over the US. It must have been both fantastic, and at the same time, overwhelming for the early sword hunters.
Initially in the late 1940's the number of collectors and dealers in the US was relatively quite small when compared to the fresh supply of old Japanese swords that were brought into the US as war souvenirs.
Since WWII, there have been thousands of ads placed in newspapers all over the US offering to buy Japanese swords. These were the days that fantastic collections could be built for pennies on the dollar, and better swords were common.
Most of the very best blades were recognized as special decades ago, and were purchased back then by the old timers you see at the Japanese sword shows today. These old timers have countless stories of great swords which they discovered over the years.
In the last 20 years, I have seen the number of WWII souvenir Japanese swords which turn up, decline to a point where I very rarely see fresh swords of quality surface these days. It's becoming painfully clear, that the few remaining important missing nihonto on record, were most likely destroyed, and will never surface… but we can still dream of finding one.
The vast majority of swords which were brought back to the US, were of average quality, and mass-produced machine made weapons. Many have battle damage and are not restorable. A small percentage of these swords brought back after the war, held blades of quality which were made by recognized sword smiths, and still remained in good condition.
As time has passed, more and more of these war souvenir swords have surfaced, and many have already been carefully examined by expert eyes, over the last few decades. Japanese swords brought back from the war will continue to turn up out of the woodwork for many years to come, but the ocean of Japanese swords which were brought back after WWII as souvenirs, was reduced to a small pond by 1990, and in the last 20 years, this supply has been reduced to a small puddle.
I remember in the early 1990's, I used to get calls on my ads offering to buy Japanese swords about twice a week, and swords turned up regularly through garage sales, estate sales, pawn shops, and through my network of antique dealer friends. I still advertise locally, but if I get one good call in 6 months, I feel very lucky. I am glad to have many long time antique dealer friends in Los Angeles, as well as local friends who also handle estate liquidations here in San Diego. When a Japanese WWII souvenir sword turns up, I usually get a call.
Over the last 63 years, most of the WWII veterans have sold their souvenir swords, and others have passed away, leaving their swords to their heirs, and many of these heirs have already sold their swords over the years.
In addition to the dwindling supply, the number of Japanese sword collectors has been growing constantly. The interest in genuine Japanese swords has exploded in the last few years, and there is no way the existing supply in the US can keep up with the demand. There are more and more books available in English these days, and prices have been rising. I am sure that in the near future, your average mumei waki in shirasaya, in reasonable polish, will start at $2000, and go up from there.
This growth in the number of collectors is clearly evidenced by the flood of Chinese fakes on the internet. Unfortunately many of these new collectors, with a thirst for a genuine historic Japanese sword, are being swindled by outright lies and fakes and reproductions of poor quality. Some of these new collectors have invested their hard earned money on worthless ugly Chinese fakes, and now have a bad taste in their mouth's.
Last time I looked, only one in a hundred, of the Japanese swords offered on eBay, were even Japanese, and of those, most were of poor quality, or in unrestorable condition, and still, they sold for prices much higher than what they could have been purchased for at a US Japanese sword show.
The ignorant new collectors on eBay with money to burn, will jump on any blade which looks genuine, and the price will climb far beyond it's real market value, so the new owner is usually buried in the blade. The supply of older genuine Japanese swords coming out of the woodwork has now dwindled to a point that it is relatively constant, with a very few blades surfacing. Your odds of finding a national treasure, or even a decent sword on an internet auction, are so slim, that you would be better off buying lottery tickets, than wasting your money on a crap shoot.
Today, the limited supply of genuine old Japanese art swords, is for all intensive purposes dried up. Since the supply has dried up, the prices will continue to rise on all genuine Japanese art swords for the foreseeable future. Soon, the better Japanese art swords offered on the internet will also vanish, as a new generation of collectors world wide start investing their money in Japanese swords of quality.
The best blades available today will usually come fully polished, and with good papers. These are the blades which have survived in good condition. These are the special blades to invest your money in. High quality blades by recognized makers and respected schools, in healthy condition, with proper papers will be your best investment.
Restoring a sword to it's rightful place can be the best reward of all! Dr. Walter Compton discovered an ancient sword in an antique shop in Georgia, which had been taken from a temple in Japan during the war.
This was a very important sword by the famous Bizen maker Kunimune. Dr. Compton could have kept this sword as his legal property, but he recognized something more important, and he felt a bigger responsibility the Japanese nation, and it's people.
Dr. Compton set an example for us all… to live for a higher purpose, and to care about all mankind, as we care about ourselves and our own interests.
When Dr. Compton decided to return this sword to the temple from which it had been taken in 1963, it paved the road to better relationships between our nations, and helped opened the door to the sharing of sword knowledge.
I believe this act of love shown by Dr. Compton for the people and culture of Japan, has contributed to the preservation of many Japanese swords in the US, which may have otherwise been destroyed by neglect. Many American collectors have been assisted by grateful Japanese sword experts since then, and the knowledge shared, has led to the presevation of countless fine swords.
After the war, some Japanese swords were stolen from temples. I use the word stolen, because the decree had excluded these art swords from confiscation, yet they were taken by ignorant members of the occupying forces. If you do discover one of these swords, it needs to be returned to the Japanese people. I am hoping to get a list of these imposrtant missing swords to keep on file, so if you have access to any information which will help identify these missing swords, please contact me.
Many swords confiscated during this period, were given up willingly by Japanese citizens who chose to comply with the law. They turned over their swords with the hope that eventually, they would get their them back. Many wrote their names and addresses on paper, which was then glued to the saya (scabbard), or wrote their family contact information on little wooden or cloth tags, and attached them to their swords with string before turning them over to the US forces. Sometimes these swords turn up today, and still have this contact information attached to the sword. It is my opinion that when a sword is discovered which still retains this unique contact information attached to it, every effort should be made to find the family of the original owner.
If you have a sword with a bring back tag, please feel free to email me, and I will be more than happy to try to assist you in finding the family who owned your sword before the war. Returning a sword to the family can bring them indescribable joy, and contributes to the continued healing between our nations, and shows respect and love for our fellow Japanese brothers and sisters, and their culture.