Low and Wide or High and Narrow

If you want a good collection, the same rules apply no matter what your spending level is, and no matter what your collecting domain is.

There are two basic structures to any collection: Low and Wide, and High and Narrow. 

It’s a quality vs. quantity tradeoff. 

Everyone has some certain limit of value that they want to put into a collection. No matter what the limit is, they are faced with the decision of how to allocate it. In the Low and Wide model that money is allocated to increase quantity and as a result, the highest level item that one can obtain is limited. If you go High and Narrow you end up with few items, but high quality. 

The ultimate High and Narrow collection can be a collection of one item. If you wanted to collect art and you got yourself a Leonardo da Vinci you could stop there. You would have a more interesting collection than someone who was picking up paintings by unsuccessful artists who later on went into other fields, no matter how many items that other guy picked up. 

When you get too many items, you run into the danger of being an accumulator. The funds of an accumulator could be better applied by restricting the quantity in his collection and upgrading the average quality that’s there. If you go too low and very wide, you end up with a collection of junk. I mean real junk. When I was ten years old I collected beer bottle caps.

500 unique caps, average value zero. 

With Japanese swords and fittings, fantastic quality and top artists are within small multiples of mediocre ones. For instance a mediocre sword at $5,000 can be paired with a Juyo sword at $50,000 for a collection of two. The Juyo sword is 10x the cost of the mediocre sword but will have 100,000x the interest level. Someone who is interested in great swords may not even want to look at the lower level blade because it has nothing to show him at all. So it wouldn’t make sense to build a collection of $5,000 blades paired with $50,000 blades. All of a viewer’s interest will be held by the best pieces in the collection, no matter what the collection is.

Considering this multiple, if you look at other art fields, the greatest artworks are very high multiples compared to mediocrity. I can buy a good working artist’s paintings for say $5,000. This is an artist who sustains a living on making art. However, the top level artworks are over $100 million dollars. This is a multiple of 20,000x between the top masterpieces and what we could consider to be decent journeyman art. 

These kinds of multiples hold if you look at antique cars, stamps, coins, paintings, sculptures, dinosaur bones, and so forth. 

This tells us something, when masterpiece swords can be had at 5x or 10x or 20x multiples to journeyman artwork, that the journeyman artwork is either overvalued or the masterpieces are undervalued. We are lucky in this field where you can get a real master’s work in fittings or swords and they are relatively accessible compared to other fields. 

With fittings, you can get yourself a 300 or 500 year old antique sculpture meant for use by nobility and warrior lords, of supreme taste and artistry and you can do that for a quarter of the annual salary of a McDonald’s burger flipper. You can buy it for far less than it cost to make for that warrior lord or samurai or noble who used it in the past. This is really a great opportunity considering the alternatives in other art fields.

For a collector, this small range in valuation differences between the mediocre and great is something that can be taken advantage of, no matter what your spending level, as small increments in valuation give rapidly increasing rewards for rarity, interest, and quality. 

This is the primary reason why it is a mistake to accumulate large numbers of items, because concentrating the same funds into fewer and more important works yields excellent results in these collecting domains.

Bear in mind that this rule applies no matter what valuation level you’re looking at for the items that you collect.

It applies equally to a tsuba collector who has 50 tsuba at $100 each that are no more than doorstops and could instead have one $5,000 tsuba that will be a master work… or a sword collector considering a Soshu Sadamune at $300,000, suitable for exhibition at any museum in the world, instead of 20 mid ranked Shinto swords, none of which exceeds the others in any way.

So the rule here is to try to control your spending and plan your collection. If you spend and acquire horizontally, always adding one more mediocre piece, eventually you will be faced with culling your collection. Almost all of us have been there, and it is in a way, natural because tastes and education levels change through pursuing this hobby. What is fascinating and cool when we start may become mundane and gauche some years down the road.

But even so, it’s just important to be aware of this and to give some thoughts to where you want to go with your collecting.

There has to be a reason to buy something. More than just liking it, because there are a lot of things out there to like and they do deserve being liked. Owning is a different set of criteria however.

You can plan for a collection of one item, and you will want the best possible within your spending limit. Or you may want a handful of items that demonstrate some kind of range of craftsmanship. Or you may want a wider collection that tries to cover as much ground as possible… but if you do that try to not sacrifice quality too much. 

If you end up with the dreaded accumulation of stuff you will have missed much more interesting paths in exchange for simple quantity.