When I started out in sword collecting, I visited the San Francisco sword show a few times. Like everyone else, eagerly looking over the tables for interesting items.
At this point I was just beginning to be able to read some Japanese, and I saw a sword with a sayagaki to Rai Kunitoshi. This was ranked Tokubetsu Hozon. Like most beginners as soon as I figured out what Juyo was, I wanted to find them myself, submit and get a sword to win in the competition.
Rai Kunitoshi is one of the masters of all the ages, so for a rookie, this seemed like an easy candidate. I looked over the sword and it was beautifully made with sparkling silky jihada. It was a little bit short but it had a Honami shumei, a red lacquer inscription attributing it to Rai Kunitoshi and this further elevated the value.
I brought the sword over to Cary Condell and asked him for his thoughts. I expected him to carefully study the blade and evaluate it and I would hear his wisdom. Cary (since passed away) did not make a lot of friends. But he had a sharp eye and a high level of knowledge.
Cary did not even pause in what he was doing, he did not look up. Some of this was part of his Condell-fu to try to build some mystique I am sure, but he just caught the sayagaki out of the corner of his eye and waved his hand over it. He said, “Don’t bother, it has no boshi.”
The boshi is the hamon of the sword in the kissaki. For westerners it is one of the last areas of the hamon they tend to look at. This is a bit misguided, as the boshi is one of the key areas of the blade for functionality and kantei. I read in a book a phrase which sums up how you should feel about the boshi.
The kissaki is the head of the sword. The boshi is its face. The boshi is as important to the sword as the face is to a person. — Someone Very Smart Whom I Am Paraphrasing
Here lies some magical wisdom because an excellent boshi is one of the factors that drives a sword through Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo rankings. Having no boshi whatsoever is a fatal flaw in most cases. It kills the sword, unless the sword is of sufficient age.
In the case of this Rai Kunitoshi with no boshi, the NBTHK struck a balancing pose. As it was Kamakura period work by a great master, it was allowed to rise to Tokubetsu Hozon but no higher. If the work was lesser quality it would not even go here, or if the work were by a lesser smith it would not receive any papers at all due to the lack of boshi.
This is, again, why people need to study and cannot accept easy, simple explanations for complicated issues. If a sword has a fatal flaw it’s going to be abandoned. Rai Kunitoshi work should never be abandoned, so by striking this balance between the extremes the NBTHK causes the blade to be preserved.
A polisher had dummied up a boshi on this sword and for beginners it can be hard to tell the difference. Why the polisher did this is up for speculation, but Occam’s razor tells us that it was to fool someone and convince them to buy this piece as a clear no-boshi condition will scare away many treasure hunters.
Anyway in the years to come I saw this sword repeatedly at the San Francisco show but it was always on a different table at a different price. Everyone who bought the blade had made their attempt at Juyo with it, failed, and then returned it to the market for the next
sucker collector to enjoy.
Therein lies something that is hard to get away from in this hobby (nor should it be gotten away from in total), which is the pursuit of elevation of papers. With this blade, few actually would enjoy it for what it was, but once the flaw was pointed out to them they would lose all enjoyment of the piece. When they saw it, they were not thinking, my what a beautiful work of Rai Kunitoshi but they were thinking Man, this is cheap and I can get a Juyo out of it. When that thought failed, back it went into the market. They passed off something that was a mistake to someone else.
There is a lot of buck passing in this hobby. Very few people absorb a gimei blade, strike the mei off out of principle, then put it back into the market with the fraud removed.
When you are looking at something that might be such a piece as to have made the rounds, either in Japan or the USA, you need to do so with the understanding that a lot of guys before you had the same ideas as you and took their shot.
Recently a work went up on a Japanese site that had old pre-Hozon papers and the signature of one of the great Shinto masters. These old Kicho, Tokubetsu Kicho and Koshu Tokubetsu Kicho papers are not reliable. They were issued by branch offices in the early days of the NBTHK and so they didn’t have the best authorities making judgments. Also, some of them came under monetary influence and judgments were bought. These old papers are white, blue and green and I often refer to them just as green papers because that’s what we see most of the time.
When it comes to simple fittings or a signature of someone less than a great master, it may not be worth the money today to hand such a piece back to the NBTHK and replace the paper with a modern paper. As such it’s up to you to look at the modest attribution or modest affirmation of a modest smith and reasonably conclude there is no hanky panky going on.
But if the papers are waving the flag for one of the best masters of all time and this piece has been kicking around since 1980 in Japan and nobody has yet upgraded the papers… well, return to Occam’s razor.
Occam’s razor tells you that given two explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler explanation is more likely to be true.
If you have a paper for a master smith which is questionable, then this causes the market value to be minimal. If the work is good, and the NBTHK is in Tokyo and you are in Japan, it is a simple matter to send it in and get the paper upgraded. This removes the doubt and the valuation will increase substantially. Possibly by several tens of thousands of dollars.
So, consider you own such a piece and you ask me to sell it. I will say, “With these green papers I can get you $5,000, but if you upgrade to Hozon papers the value will be $20,000.”
Now there are two scenarios. Status quo, you keep the green papers and sell it as it is for $5,000, or you upgrade to Hozon papers and sell for $20,000.
Which do you choose for yourself in this case? Of course you will upgrade to Hozon and take the extra money.
Occam tells us then that if such a huge name on a questionable paper, if it’s been sitting around like this for 37 years, other people will have tried it because they will want to cash in on the valuation upgrade. The same as you when you are looking at it.
If it hasn’t happened, the most reasonable explanation is because people tried to do it already and it failed. Occam tells us that this most reasonable explanation is most likely the truth. Not always the truth but the most likely to be true.
Now, the thing that halts people from accepting the results of this reasonable argument is greed. People want to find the treasure, they want to get something and not pay full price. So they tend to leap before they look then, snatch it before anyone else can get it, then they bring it to someone like me and ask for a
confirmation of how smart they are judgment about the authenticity of their purchase. Invariably, this judgment is negative.
People who knowingly sell you junk tend to do so on a no guarantees, no returns basis.
Just because something has no guarantee doesn’t mean it’s junk… you can’t flip the clauses here, but all known junk comes with no guarantee because the seller already knows that if you know as much as he knows, you will for sure return it.
I will repeat again, for safety’s sake, that just because someone says “no returns, no guarantees” does not mean it is surely junk. Some people, especially individuals, do not want to deal with your indecision, your buyer’s remorse, your best friend down the street weighing in with his “expertise” and so forth. So they make sure that all sales are final, then if you end up being a bonehead, they don’t get blowback from it.
So please don’t read it backwards.
But it does mean that if you buy something under this condition, you need to do your due diligence in advance. That benefits everyone, including the seller as no time is wasted, no arguments are had, no inventory is restocked if you answered all of the questions in advance of jumping and impaling yourself on the sword you lusted for.
The thing to remember is that people in this hobby, when they discover their mistake, they pass it on to someone else. This is how a blade can float around for 37 years with a false signature of a top ranked smith on it and old papers that anyone in the know will not accept. So you need to be aware of this and temper your enthusiasm for discovery with the thought that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That famous phrase that your grandpa might have told you is a paraphrasing of Occam’s razor.
Mr. Occam is your best friend in life. The Buddhist entity Fudo Myoo is said to carry a ken which slices through the illusions of the world to reveal the truth. He carries Occam’s razor. Your enemy is your own greed, it is the thing that blinds you to common sense and gets you into trouble.
This is not to say that you should never speculate. Speculation is good in the right context, and also hones your skills at analysis. But the point here is that you need to stop and do that analysis before you decide to proceed. Especially if there are no guarantees and no returns, you need to make sure you are doing something smart and not something incredibly dumb.
The major downside of doing something incredibly dumb is not the sheepish feeling once you figure it out. It is not the loss of face when someone explains to you how dumb you were.
It is that you will be faced with that moral dilemma of what do I do now? Do you eat your mistake or do you try to find another
sucker collector who will buy your treasure from you?
It ends up being a question that forces you to choose between being a good person and being a bad person. Your desire and need for money will test your desire and need to be a good citizen. We are human, we are fallible, and if we choose poorly we have to live with the knowledge of that choice. It’s better to avoid this situation entirely up front by dealing with your greed by just doing a bit of due diligence and not expecting unreasonable things up front.
These speculative items out there, they exist because of the other type of person. Be aware that there is a minefield and pay attention to the advice that your grandpa would give you.
It’s your own sense of greed that you need to do battle with, that will keep you being a collector and prevent you from being a sucker.