Context

This came up recently advising  someone about a nidai Tadatsuna sword. The owner had a fine specimen of more than premium length and ranked Tokubetsu Hozon, and he was happy with the piece and it represented this smith in his collection. Probably the sword sold for what appeared to be a budget friendly price, as this is a famous smith and well regarded it was bought and added to this collection.

There are details though that apply to these things that are not always evident to buyers. I’ll go over a few examples.

This is the finest work of Ikkanshi Tadatsuna and it is just under 64 cm long. If I presented that to most out-of-Japan buyers they would dismiss it before looking at it because of the length. Yet, this work is ranked Tokubetsu Juyo, one of three of his works that passed this high and I think it is better than the one that is Juyo Bunkazai. 

To understand why this is, is first to get past the length-is-everything mentality, and then to understand the context of the blade in question.

Ikkanshi Tadatsuna, example at Tokuju
Ikkanshi Tadatsuna example at Juyo

Now the context of this sword is that this smith is a master horimono craftsman. His work in the ji and hamon is excellent, but where he really shines is in his horimono.

He did not always make horimono, I would assume that these are custom orders on behalf of clients or else special works to show off his skills. When he made horimono he signed the work with an additional comment of Hori dō saku as is found on this blade (i.e. carvings by the smith). 

The special point then of this smith is his horimono. It is not the length, or the style of hamon, or whatever else, the context here is does it have horimono, and how good is it because in this regard the smith stands out from all other Shinto smiths.

Though this blade above is 64 cm the horimono are incredibly detailed, and are subject matter not found in his other blades. Furthermore, the sword was exquisitely perserved and seems to have avoided polish that tends to damage horimono (which really cannot be helped during polishing).

So in this case, we have master craftsmanship in his special style, above the level of quality of his average works with a super interesting, detailed and well preserved example to study.

If you buy a Tadatsuna without horimono you miss the entire point of collecting this swordsmith. What you get is simply a checkbox item: you got a Tadatsuna.

Because of this, we see two things happening in the market. The price of the blade is lower without horimono, and, we also see a lot of blades with ato-bori horimono that attempt to upgrade one of his works by slipping some horimono on after the fact. 

Those of course are close to vandalism. 

Where they rank in value is like this:

  1. Hori dō saku blades
  2. Blades with no horimono or simply bohi
  3. Blades with ato-bori

People who do not study may rush in to buy the third type because they see a Tadatsuna with horimono. They do not have the eye or study background to separate it from those that Tadatsuna made himself. And then the second type may just seem like a good deal. It has to be priced less though than the first type because of the context of this smith’s work focusing on the horimono he made.

It’s one of these ways that a bargain hunting reflex can lead people astray, and into second-rate items that appear on the surface to be good deals when in fact they are priced entirely appropriately. The good deal bargain-hunting reflex though becomes the primary reason that someone decides to buy something. For this reason a seller of types (2) and (3) above won’t take the time to explain to a buyer that they are less valuable. It may not in fact be their responsibility to hand-hold everyone through the process, some responsibility for this does fall on the buyer’s shoulders.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the second time of Tadatsuna, with no horimono. What I am trying to communicate though is that the reduced price is not because it’s your lucky day, it’s because they are indeed valued lower and that’s the accurate market price. So when your gut tells you to buy the special deal today made just for you because someone likes the cut of your jib, think twice and three times, what is the reason for the pricing on this item.

Sukehiro

The second generation Sukehiro is held by some people to be the best of the Shinto era smiths. I am inclined to agree, if he is not the best then he is at least standing as a peer with the best of the Shinto makers. Sometimes it gets into an apples and oranges comparison or falls down into what style you like. But his best blades are exquisite. 

So, with this reputation some will buy again based on a bargain hunter’s reflex if a nice looking Sukehiro comes up. Context again is important though, because in the market his blades will be priced out based on signature types. 

The uneducated buyer will react with his gut that why should just a different signature change the price? I should buy the best looking blade.

It’s not the actual signature itself that causes the pricing difference. When he adds Tsuda to his signature, it reflects a certain period of his work that also corresponds to his peak skill. Thus it becomes a reflection of the quality of the blade and a rule of thumb about how it’s going to be priced in the marketplace. Rules of thumb are just that: a blade can be Juyo quality and pass Juyo without Tsuda in the signature, but in general a blade signed Tsuda is made with his highest skill and deepest knowledge and will be better than a blade without that.

Inoue Shinkai

This is another one that follows the signature type. Shinkai began his life as a swordsmith signing with his father’s name Kunisada. At some point he added Inoue to the signature and eventually changed his name to Inoue Shinkai completely. This is the name we generally use to refer to him.

Where buyers fall down again is the bargain-hunter’s reflex. They will find one of his blades with the Kunisada signature, and the price will seem good relative to other Shinkai they have seen, and they will buy based on that principle.

In their inventory list they will refer to it as a Shinkai and when they tell their friends about it they will do the same.

But it’s not a Shinkai though it’s made by the one and only smith that ended up with this name.

The reasons again are that the name change reflects a period of maturation of skill and the period in which he made his peak work. The initial works are in his father’s style and as his life progressed he shifted to a style that was based on Go Yoshihiro. Some of these are quite sublime. 

He was no slouch under his first signature though and some of those like with Sukehiro are Juyo quality and do pass Juyo. They are masterpieces. But, they are not “peak Shinkai” and so they don’t command the same price in the market.

Again: nothing is wrong with them. But, the price is naturally lower than those with the Shinkai signature, and so when people trigger on a bargain-hunting basis because of this, they are triggering wrong. It’s just normal market pricing, it is not a special deal on a Shinkai.

Kiyomaro

Of course this smith is well known and his masterpiece works go for incredible prices in the market. He signed with several signatures, the most common is Masayuki before he became Kiyomaro.

For the reasons stated above with Shinkai and Sukehiro, the same pricing rules apply… and the same mistakes happen where someone buys a Masayuki and then tells people about their Kiyomaro.

It is not a Kiyomaro.

It is work of the man who will go on to become Kiyomaro. The Kiyomaro name reflects a period of time where his skill peaked. Masayuki blades are excellent and I will repeat, they can pass Juyo and there is nothing wrong with them.

The only problem is when a buyer buys Masayuki and then thinks he bought Kiyomaro at a special discount, and basically, the entire reason he bought it is because he thinks that it was really a great price for Kiyomaro. And it’s not: it’s a Masayuki sold at a Masayuki price. Kiyomaro sells at a Kiyomaro price. It’s all for a reason, the development of skill of the smith and when they hit their peak work.

Hosho

We can also apply this thinking to the work of Hosho school, where it departs from the archetype of the perfect and ideal masame. With signed blades excepted, the quality of the masame is going to reflect on the final price. 

Length, revisited

Length is always an important aspect when buying, as short blades will trade at prices less than long blades. When it comes to the koto period, the longer a blade is the more of its original shape is retained if it is suriage. Some cases you can get some of the original nakago preserved after suriage and it almost has the original tachi shape. So length in this case also corresponds to condition. 

Length is always a factor in the price. What is important in the message delivered here though is just simply that length isn’t everything. Many times I have had people email me lists of their collection and each time they are focused on this blade has this length and this has that length and it is almost like the length is the only reason they have these things. 

It’s just important not to lose sight of the bigger picture, as described by the Tadatsuna above. Length remains important but mostly as a way of distinguishing otherwise equivalent works in the marketplace. 

Two identically made Go Yoshihiro, one being 62 cm and one being 75 cm, the 75 cm is the one to get if you have unlimited budget. It will be more expensive and more precious because it retains more of the original shape and more work is available to see. 

But if the shorter Go is better made and the longer Go is worn out, then the shorter Go will be higher in value. So simply focusing on length will lead you astray. It’s just one component, an important one, but does not stand by itself.

A word about contrarianism

All of this said, a particular work can stand out as being special specifically because it departs from the most famous aspects of a smith’s work. An unusual sugata, or hamon, can indicate a special custom made work of the smith or a moment where the smith tried to expand their repertoire. Cases in point are the Murasame Sukehiro pictured below, or a Nosada I had once where he emulated the hamon of his brother-by-choice Kanemoto. These works are unusual examples that stand alone within the repertoire of a smith. 

The Murasame Sukehiro

The trick here is having enough knowledge under your belt to understand when something unusual translates into something being extremely special. There is no substitute for study and experience in trying to sort that out. What may strike you as unusual and collectible might just strike someone else as weird. Which it is is only a matter of opinion, the more people that agree with you, the more you will see the price reflect it in the marketplace. The Murasame above sold for 65 million yen… weird or unusual, you be the judge.

As examples, the longest work a smith made or the longest surviving example is going to be another bragging right that a particular work has and will make it stand out as unusual in the market. A blade being named, or having a cutting test, or a specific history, they all are part of the pricing function.

Conclusion

When collecting various schools and smiths, it is important to have an understanding about what makes each one special. The purpose of this post is simply to make people focus when they are looking at something and ignore the knee-jerk response to jump on something because of the price at first seeming to be good.

Understanding why it seems good is the key to making the decision to acquire it or not. It could be your lucky day, or there may be a reason for it that you don’t understand just yet. 

If you understand the context then you can understand the pricing function, and then decide if it really is the opportunity that your gut told you it was on its face.

 

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