Out of every ten swords signed “Kotetsu,” eleven will be fake. — Ancient American Proverb
Gimei swords are those that bear a fake signature. These signatures were added either recently or some time in the past for a handful of reasons… all involving deception. The original degree of malevolence involved in this deception can vary. Even now they can be innocently bought and sold, but at some point gimei blades can be weaponized and used to defraud someone.
Currently there is only one good reason to consider a gimei sword for purchase. And a lot of bad ones.
There is a certain style of fakery that is for protocol. An older blade with a certain attribution could have the maker’s name added to it as a way of enhancing the status of the gift.
Mostly though they seem to have been created for financial reasons. We see fakes of Shinshinto smiths of the late Edo period (mid 1800s) that had to have been made then in the late 1800s or in the 1900s, just due to the timing of the target smith’s work period.
There is not a lot of reason to buy such things these days, as they were not likely to have been made by anyone of high regard with one exception. This exception is a smith known by his nickname Kajihei and he is a talented maker. His smith name is Naomitsu and he is a student of the master smith Naotane. He is worth looking up and reading about if you have the time.
The impression I get from his work is that he was so confident in it passing muster with a viewer that he didn’t go so far as he could go in faking the target smith’s work.
If one can detect his particular fakery (he has habits) and the item can be had for cheap, it is an interesting item to add to a collection because it helps tell the overall story of Japanese swords.
Other than this, there is no point in buying a gimei work of the Shinshinto period if you want a nice sword, any more than there is in buying a fake Rolex if you want a nice watch. If you cannot afford a Rolex you are better off buying a Timex or a Swatch or anything else like this. They are still good watches. There are plenty of good swords available without buying a known fake.
There is a certain situation where you encounter a fake in the wild where it is worth taking a chance on it. There are other situations, like if they are in the hands of a dealer or on an open Japanese auction site, where they are not worth touching. If you find something at a garage sale you may need to buy it in order to take it home and research it. If you find the equivalent of a lost Van Gogh being sold on eBay with the seller’s statement that it is Van Gogh and the price is $500, well honestly now… do you need me to tell you to stay away from that? I hope not.
This ultimately is the point: there are enough good items out there that you don’t need to bother with a known fake.
The one time where you should take the risk on something is in the case where a blade that seems to be koto has a signature added to it. Sometimes these are Shinto signatures. This indicates someone trying to upgrade a blade but they didn’t know exactly what they have.
One of my friends found a Hankei once, this had old green papers on it. A lot of people saw the signature and laughed at it, and old green papers are very suspect now. So these people in their knowledge stayed away from the blade.
But this guy is sharp and knew he was looking at a koto blade. He removed the signature and papered the sword, and it returned as work of Shizu Kaneuji.
I bought a pair of swords once at auction, one had a bad attribution to Masamune and the other had a fake signature of Yukimitsu. This auction was in Europe and a lot of European collectors were there and they took me for some beer after.
None of them bid against me.
The previous owner paid over a million dollars for the set. I paid about $70,000. Now, none of these guys bid against me because that set had made the rounds in Europe and everyone figured that they were no good. Some in fact had the conclusion already that the katana was a Shinto blade.
So they in their knowledge stayed away from the set.
I knew the signatures were no good, but I also knew like with the Hankei, that if the underlying blade was a solid koto blade they would be good purchases.
I got it on the first bid. Which of course scared me to death because it meant I was the only person with positive feelings on this set.
There is a long and painful story from here about trying to validate the blades and what they actually were. The late Michael Hagenbusch and Bob Benson were both very helpful to me in this.
After study and getting opinions, the conclusion was laid down pretty clearly that the katana was a great sword but it was Shinto, and taking off the Masamune attribution would make it a mumei Shinto blade. And mumei Shinto blades are junk. I had hoped to get Shizu with this, but my hopes were in vain.
The tanto I believed to be Nobukuni and I had high hopes for as well. When I got the items to Japan for examination Tanobe sensei told me that this blade had to stay and it would paper Juyo most certainly if the signature was removed. He said that the blade was at the worst case Nobukuni, so I felt a lot better at that, but it had even chances to pass to Soshu Sadamune. I think it had more than that in the end, but this is how you make a statement with no guarantees.
So anyway this is the danger involved with knowledge and with gimei blades.
- The first danger is that you don’t know anything so you buy a blade with a fake signature.
- The second danger is that you learn enough that you don’t buy a blade with a fake signature and miss a koto masterpiece in disguise.
- The third danger is that you learn enough so that you do buy a blade with a fake signature, but you get a later period fake of no value. Ironically you bought it knowing it was a fake.
So it is really an area of speculation. If there is room for honest speculation that is. The examples above, say for instance on a Japanese auction site, that means that other people have exhausted and answered the mystery already, and now they are just trying to dump their garbage into your greedy hands. Ultimately a treasure hunter will grab it. They know it. That’s why they put it up for sale instead of removing the signature… they already know it is a modern period fake that is going nowhere.
The other reason you see some of these for sale are when innocent dealers of high reputation openly disclose a fake as part of the sale. They do this with the knowledge that a less reputable dealer may take it and sell it as the real thing. Because it is clearly a modern period fake the first dealer can buy it cheap, and then the second dealer is going to take it somewhere where knowledge is not so good. What can’t sell in Japan because people can identify it immediately as garbage, can often sell in other blades to a treasure hunter or someone suffering from a lack of common sense.
In my earlier days when I found a Masahide I thought was very nice and legit, I was told by Cary Condell it was a fake. I sold it as such, as I was a lot less experienced and just got back the small amount it cost me. More recently I bought some fittings in Japan with fake signatures. These I thought were OK and I had a guarantee from a good dealer on them that they would paper.
When they failed papers, I asked in public if anyone wanted them for what I paid, they had failed papers but still had artistic merit. These sold quite quickly and I didn’t think much of it until I saw them on a major art auctioneer’s website some months later and someone bought them for six times the price I paid and sold them out at.
So that tells you a little bit of what people do with stuff when they know it’s no good. They will pass it on to someone else. In this case the auctioneer presented them as legitimate and someone bought them thinking that a major auction house selling something is some kind of guarantee of authenticity (it isn’t, far from it).
After this, I won’t ever sell something that I know has a bad signature (I did this twice, 15 years apart, and fully disclosed each time). That woke me up as to the fact that someone is going to buy it to use it as a weapon against someone ignorant. My disclosure is not going to be necessarily handed down the line along with the item going into its future.
The only sure thing to do when you encounter any fake signature is to hammer it out (get it done by a pro). This brings up a whole other mixed bag of ethics, in that, it’s not clear sometimes if a signature is fake or legit.
If we get into hammering out every signature with small discrepancies we end up in a state of confirmation bias. Once this happens, any signature on the periphery of acceptability gets erased because there are no other signatures similar to it in the book.
Well, since new signature examples come in piecemeal, every new one that comes along is going to get erased if it’s not already in the book. This means we destroy data that should instead extend the book. In this manner evidence is destroyed if it does not confirm what we already believe to be true. No learning is possible.
It’s like if you discover dinosaur bones but you have never seen a dinosaur so you destroy them as not being real. If you destroyed every dinosaur bone that was ever found, one at a time, you’d never establish anything in museums to use for future study.
Whether a signature should be removed or preserved is a judgment call to make after consulting with friends, the collecting community, and experts. In some cases it is a no brainer decision, where something is just a bad fake. In others, the blade can paper as high as Tokubetsu Juyo Token with a signature that is not fully accepted because it departs from some expected characteristics.
What you don’t want to be is the guy who wiped out the wrong signature.
There is a special place in hell waiting for you if that happens.