A good collection tells a story

This is the other part in collection planning, the first being the previous post about how to allocate funds. This advice as well applies to all levels, from someone spending hundreds to someone spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A good collection can be more than the sum of its parts, because the parts can act like pages in a book, telling a story. 

The Honami sword appraisers handed down to us an abstraction that is used to generally classify the traditions of sword making. This is the Gokaden which means the Five Traditions. Those traditions are Yamato, Yamashiro, Bizen, Soshu and Mino. 

The Honami came up with this at a time where Shinto and younger swords didn’t exist yet. So on top of the five classical traditions, we can add Shinto, Shinshinto, Gendaito and Shinsakuto.

So, a seven or eight sword collection can tell you a great story, selecting one piece from each of the traditions of sword making. You could make a plan to acquire all seven and you could in fact give yourself half of your lifetime to acquire each. Or, faster if you wish.

Some pacing is important, when we order a nice dinner at a restaurant we don’t get starter, main, and dessert all delivered at the same time. Pacing yourself does a couple of things, it allows you to experience anticipation and delayed gratification which may be annoying to children but should be pleasant to us as adults. Also, it forces you to learn some discipline so that you don’t go blowing your money willy nilly on the anything that flirts with your interest.

If seven or eight swords are too many, then you could pursue a classical Gokaden collection and take five. If five are too many, you could focus on the top three and have Yamashiro, Bizen and Soshu examples. If three are too many, you could do something like take one koto example and then buy one modern made blade that copies that school to show the similarities and differences over time.

None of this is necessary, it is just showing that some attention to the overall collecting plan means that each individual item both stands on its own as a piece of interest in your collection and has a higher level role as a player in a story that you can tell with the collection.

What story you want to tell is entirely up to you. Some people fall in love with a particular school or tradition and then try to fill out examples from that school.

During the late Edo period, nobility liked to collect the work of the Goto master artisans mounted in boxes. With up to 17 generations of the main line, you could try to pursue an example of each master artist. You could then tell the story of the evolution of the Goto school as well as the evolution of artistic tastes in Japan over a 400 year history or so. 

Wealthier sword collectors could take on something challenging, for instance, to collect Masamune and the Juttetsu. The Juttetsu are the ten famous students of Masamune. This is half fable, as ten of those students did not work directly for him but were influenced by overall Soshu trends in the 1300s… and this is part of the story that you can indeed tell with such a collection. This collection is something that could take a very dedicated collector his entire life to assemble, as many of these makers are very rare and many of them are very expensive. Not to mention you need to add a Masamune to the top of the pyramid to finish this one off in style. 

Whatever story you tell will increase the interest level of your collection, and focus your collecting. The wandering eye is a difficult thing to defeat and it leads to the land of simple accumulation instead of forming a solid collection. The opposite of accumulating is curating: using some discernment and discrimination when you decide whether or not to buy something, and matching it into a bigger picture.

During your days of collecting, you may stop and start and try different directions as you go. But as long as you have a greater idea in your mind than simply buying something because you like it, then you can deepen your pleasure in your collection substantially.

There is a great sense of satisfaction as you build toward finishing a planned collection. And, once you have achieved that there is no need to finish there if you wish to continue. If you completed the Gokaden then it may be time to add a fine Shinto sword to that mix and start planning to add the four modern traditions. 

Or you could select your favorite sword from your collection and begin to build out that school by looking for other prominent artists related to the smith who made your example. 

All of this is again, cost-neutral. If your means are modest, you can pick modest examples from each of these traditions and you can still follow the general idea and accomplish the same thing.

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