What I learned from you

My background is as a mathematician and a software engineer. When I was 21 I started a software company with one of my friends, and we made tools for the financial services industry. After 9 years we got bought out by a big company and at that time I focused on my interests and hobbies, one of which was Japanese swords.

When I started my website, it was only as a place to sell from my own collection as my interests changed and grew. This brought up new challenges, like learning the magic of how the Japanese photographers captured blades in such beautiful and elegant ways. It took years to figure out the tricks and making the photography better is a daily task. Becoming a more advanced student meant studying better blades and as my site got better swords and better photography people started asking me to sell their swords for them so I started taking consignments. So, basically you pushed me into becoming a dealer.

Once I started making specific acquisitions with the thought of putting them on my site I crossed over. At first I was buying out of my interest, but over time, you pushed back at me. You took from me the blades you thought were best, and those that were not so interesting to you I kept. From that I learned to buy blades that you found interesting. And I started trying to riddle out, just what was that magic that made something interesting.

Well, people always like a good price. But what they really love is the story and the life of their sword, as well as its own beauty. They want something complete, with a scabbard, ready to use if the need be, as that for them was part of the story of why a sword existed. It is more than just scholarship, it is the feeling of being transported back in time that a good sword gives them that motivated them to buy.

So you taught me to pay attention to those bonus items. Koshirae, history, high level papers, signatures, the more special a blade was the more that people liked it. Well that seems simple, but it is surprisingly easy to not see the forest for the trees.

I began to realize that the real premium items were in the minority. That these bonus features indeed did elevate items from the crowd and that if I could focus on such things I would help both my clients and myself. The more I study the more I try to focus on what makes something worth owning vs. being just interesting to look at.

I came to the conclusion recently based on what you have educated me on by your buying and selling behavior, that collectors should lock their focus into a band of interest. You taught me that nobody should ever buy something just because it’s cheap. One should always be interested in swords that are below your criteria to spend money on. Spending money is something that comes above simply being interested in and learning from the item that you see.

We should try to concentrate on what we know we can’t obtain and work as close to that level as possible. Those are the blades that will keep us interested forever and constantly pay dividends. It is better after all to regret the one that got away, than to regret the one you got.

Bonus features on a sword include these following features and they are important for a collector to note as they do separate a work from the crowd. None of them on their own make or break an acquisition, but the more you check off on the list, the more interesting something gets.

  • high level smith with historically good reputation and interesting back story
  • great condition item
  • ideal length (above 70cm for instance for a katana)
  • unusual form or style for the smith or school
  • unusually attractive work
  • accompanied by koshirae
  • accompanied by old historical documents or Honami paperwork
  • documented somewhere in a reference book, especially old ones from the 1700s, or new ones by master scholars
  • capability to paper to a higher level like Juyo or Tokubetsu Juyo, or already having attained this level
  • when old, signatures are a real bonus as most work is unsigned via shortening
  • when old, unaltered nakago (ubu) is a big feature and very rare
  • owned by one of the feudal lords or major clans (daimyo) or Meiji era nobility (provenance)
  • legitimate battle scars
  • annotations from owners or maintainers of the blade (kiritsuke-mei)
  • cutting tests
  • proof that the item was cherished by previous owners, such as solid gold habaki or a historical nickname (meito)

All of these items on this list are side bonuses that magnify the interest that we have as collectors, because ultimately we appreciate not only the beauty of the sword, but we appreciate how other people experience such a thing and we appreciate the life the sword lived. Each one of the above either tells us some of the sword’s story, or tells us what other people (especially scholars) think about the blade and that ends up generating more interest for us.

So right there, you taught me to look for these things and I do. I know you are already looking for them, if not consciously, subconsciously.

Ultimately we are a bunch of romantics. You taught me that.