But All My Friends Say It’s Good

There has always been this phenomenon out there. But it seems to be getting worse. Treasure hunters everywhere want to be that guy who discovers something very important, both for the prestige, the thill and of course the valuation. 

Importantly in digging up gold and diamonds: it certainly helps if you are a geologist.

The problem that people have is that they want to be the treasure hunter and make their big score, but they don’t have the background to understand what they are looking at. People have a very large emotional need to have their find confirmed. 

I have encountered this attitude many times. 

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a bitch. It is your brain working to hear pleasant things and shut out unpleasant things. It is your brain in conflict with external, uncomfortable facts, and it wants to resolve this by dumping the uncomfortable facts and thereby staying in a nice, safe, cozy place. As such, information that challenges the cozy safe place tends to be rejected, and information that allows the brain to stay in its cozy safe place is readily accepted. 

The logic works like this then:

As you can see, there is no end state to this “logic” which allows for the item to actually be fake.

This person is only seeking confirmation. If the judge does not give confirmation, then cognitive dissonance sets in. 

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

As soon as you tell someone something they don’t want to hear, this starts the gears turning about why what you said to them is faulty so that they can continue to believe what they want to believe. This kind of person will never learn, they will go from masterpiece to masterpiece and each one will be some recycled fake showing up on an auction site or a sketchy dealer of ill repute for a cheap price. This person cannot be guided because they are not using scholarship to educate themselves, they are hunting treasures and just want confirmation because that releases dopamine in their brain. They want the dopamine, not the truth.

The result is that when someone experiences cognitive dissonance they either need to resolve it by throwing away the previously held opinion (i.e. learn) or else dismiss the new information as fake news.

The creation and establishment of psychological consistency allows the person afflicted with cognitive dissonance to lessen his or her mental stress by actions that reduce the magnitude of the dissonance, realised either by changing with or by justifying against, or by being indifferent to the existential contradiction that is inducing the mental stress.

Modes of rationalization

These are some of the ways that people rationalize their treasure

But it’s in a book

Congratulations, your item is in a book. You better be damn sure that:

  1. The owner of the book knew what they were talking about and didn’t publish a fake… because books have a lot of fakes in them, either unknowingly, or knowingly on the part of the author who is suffering through all of the same cognitive dissonance as any other buyer/owner and so publishes his own possession in his own book which then somehow lifts it up by its own bootstraps and verifies it. Publication of an item is not authentication. It is subject to the same judgments as before it was published. 
  2. You better be damn sure that your item is the actual thing from the book as it is fairly simple especially in the case of old books with approximated horimono, for someone else to take the same book and copy the horimono onto an existing candidate blade. You need to be sure everything on the nakago matches, the hamon matches, the length matches, every single detail or else: I’m sorry but that book is owned by many people, and some of them are the types of people who will copy from the book onto an object. In the case of tosogu you need to look at every scratch, dent and ding on the item and be sure that they all match before you claim that it’s your item in the book. 

Remember: even when it is actually the thing, and not someone using the book as a template to make fakes, that it’s still not authentic just because it’s there.

But all my friends say the NBTHK screwed up

Please. Please, no.

If you have an example of a rare school and all your friends keep telling you it’s good and the top experts say it’s fake, why on earth are you taking the people with small expertise and using it to conclude that the people with great expertise don’t know what they’re talking about.

Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions

If you have group (A) of low expertise and group (B) of high expertise, and group (A) and group (B) do not have the same conclusion, then the only conclusion you should be making is that the group with less expertise is more likely to be wrong. Trying to find ways that the group of small experts has outwitted the group of high experts is seeking out confirmation as in the flowchart above. 

This is not a hard and fast rule: because the call to expertise itself is a fallacy (i.e. because an expert said so, therefore it is true). But it is important to understand that this fallacy is basically a means of saying that this isn’t a proof. For example if you were put up for murder charges and the government said that you did it because a footprint expert said that those are your footprints at the scene of the crime: this is not proof. This is an expert opinion so if the expert is good enough, basically it would look bad for you, but it’s still not proof to the tune of 100%. But this is why governments around the world do not have legal systems that require 100% proof, they just require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

So what we are talking about here is reasonable doubt. A group of enthusiasts who want to challenge the opinions of a group of experts need to have some kind of reasonable doubt in order to do that. 

If you have a rare or unusual work and your friends say it’s OK, well, how many of these things have your friends seen? On what basis are they saying it’s OK? On their guts? Based on some text description they read once and partially remember from a book? 

Text descriptions are not useful for analysis. People need to stop doing this. Because a book says that the smith made itame and your sword in question is itame, you can’t conclude that your sword is by that smith. Like 95% of swords have itame in them. Similarly for the rest of the description: smith made midareba with some gunome, notare and choji elements in it. Well, welcome to about 95% of koto swords. So you can’t just take text, remember: a picture is worth a thousand words. Words are not sufficient to make conclusions.

Furthermore there is this major problem with your friends.

From the Urban Dictionary:

A hugbox is a derogatory term for an environment, usually on the internet, in which a group with similar interests gathers to discuss topics in what they intend to be a safe, comforting, and confrontation-free environment.

What they intend to be a “safe space” almost always turns into a circle-jerk of forced consensus and ends with every member repeatedly expressing the exact same opinion to each other, no matter the topic. Since the community is founded on unconditional love and support no matter how much of a tool a person is, these communities tend to attract tools and rational and useful advice is usually a rarity.

If you show something to your friends, your friends are most likely just going to tell you what you want to hear or something positive for a couple of reasons.

The first being that you yourself will condition your friends when you are seeking out confirmation. Friends who give you bad news, if you push back against that bad news, they will stop giving you bad news and start giving you good news to just make you shut the hell up. 

The second being that you will naturally seek out friends who give you positive news instead of bad news. Enough times going to the well of unhappiness that is emailing me and asking me for my opinion and you will stop doing that. You will however keep asking Happy Jack who gives you the thumbs up with every Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Rembrandt you buy on eBay for $300. Happy Jack will just keep feeding you the same bullshit:

  1. Yeah dude, it’s great, looks good to me.
  2. Dude, so sorry that the NBTHK flunked it, too bad they made a mistake.

He will never tell you what you don’t want to hear but he will simply pat you on the head like you want, you will be happy and your happiness will bounce off and onto him and he will be happy and now everyone is happy as long as nobody says anything negative.

Sometimes Happy Jack just won’t have a god damn clue about the subject you’re asking him about. Why would you ask Happy Jack the $200 tsuba collector for his opinion on your Masamune discovery? You might as well ask him to unify quantum physics and general relativity. He is not suitable for either subject. If Happy Jack owns 5 Masamune, then you can ask him about Masamune. If he doesn’t, then there’s no point other than seeking out confirmation. 

If however you have a $200 tsuba and Happy Jack collects this and has a good record with them, by all means ask him. Just know what domain his expertise is in and ask accordingly.

Other times Happy Jack will have a clue and if you only ever pushed back on him when he gave you a serious analysis he will just start to withhold his true thoughts. 

I have known many collectors with large amounts of garbage and any attempt to tell them what is good and what is bad gets very hard pushback. This kind of guy has informed me then that he doesn’t really want an opinion from me, he’s made his own conclusions and he will fight with me after asking my opinion. In this way I can no longer give this person my honest thoughts, because the door is not open for that.

But it’s just so good it has to be legitimate

Quality certainly does argue for legitimacy but only as part of a bigger picture. The signature if it’s there has to be right. Other failings can’t be ignored simply because something is well made. A lot of fakers were good at it. A fake only has to be good enough for a greedy person to snap it up. So you can’t ever overlook problems with handwaving when the signature wasn’t right. 

The most famous of sword fakers, Kajihei, Tanobe sensei wrote this about him:

The reason why Kajihei faked so frequently Masahide and Naotane results from his background [is the -db] relationship between these schools [and himself, i.e. they were easy to fake as he studied within this school -db], but it is the question why he decided not to copy the KAO exactly as the rest of the signature.

It is possible that Kajihei – in spite of his very active business as a forger – had a guilty conscience, and that he quasi worked some small hints into his signatures with which he shows that they are not the real thing.

What this is implying is that Kajihei could have made even better fakes than he did but he ran up short on purpose. Other authors have pointed out the same thing, that there was a certain casual approach to his fakery that left clues to the student about the lack of legitimacy to it. In this way it may be that Kajihei felt that he was only ripping off the greedy and stupid, and there is certainly this thought among people everywhere that this is OK. By doing it like this he didn’t completely tarnish his teacher and his teacher’s teacher’s work but he left it open to experts to sort his fakes from the real. He just wanted to take money from fools.

And of course it’s been noted for centuries.

If they pay a penie or two pence more for the reddinesse of them..let them looke to that, a foole and his money is soone parted.

— John Bridges, 1587

So you just cannot look at one aspect of something and draw a conclusion. The whole needs to speak to the conclusion. 

This other group said it’s legitimate

This is like doctor shopping.

Some patients decide in advance that they know what is wrong with them because they looked it up on the internet and it sounded right. So with this decision in hand they start consulting experts to get a diagnosis. 

The first doctor they see says sorry no, you are not suffering from that disease so I won’t give you a prescription for it.

So does the second doctor.

And then the third. And fourth and Nth until finally some quack out there who just wants to write a prescription because of their obligations to a drug company or else maybe they own part of the pharmacy on site, says yeah, you are suffering from that super rare disease and it does need an expensive prescription and here you go.

Now, our sufferer takes the conclusion: all those other people didn’t know what they were talking about. 

Trouble is the one thing in the world, that if you seek out, you will surely find it.

— Overheard from a scuba diving instructor 

So this is it. Really if you continue to try, eventually you will get someone or some group to confirm what you think. That doesn’t actually mean that everyone else involved was wrong. It just means that you kept looking for trouble until you found it, and believe me, if you keep looking you will find it.

There are other modes as well but you may get the point now.

This is the point.

You are your own worst enemy

If you want to believe, you are going to find ways to believe. Instead you need to adopt a conservative and skeptical stance. 

Just because an old book said this, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it looks like this other thing doesn’t mean it’s true. You cannot sit there and try to find some kind of weird faulty self-contradictory reasoning to dump your faith into to believe what you want to believe. 

The item needs to prove itself.

If you think this tsuba is Somin because it’s so good, please tell me that you have handled 10+ legitimate works of Somin so that you understand what Somin-level-good means. 

If you think this sword is Masamune, please tell me you have handled many Masamune so you know what the expectations are. This goes for Shinkai, Kotetsu, Mitsutada all of the famous makers of swords and tosogu. If you want to believe you will believe and there are too many people with wide swaths of garbage in their collections who have not adopted any skepticism or not enough skeptism. 

Just simply competently made is not a reason that something is legitimate because many fakers were competent craftsmen forced into fakery when their life and family depended on income from this kind of endeavor.

And remember this.

It is still going on

At the moment people are sending me a lot of links to auction sites and want a hot take on something that is active or someone else just bought and in almost all cases these are fakes.

I can tell you that the last five Juyo blades I have bought or considered buying all had NBTHK Juyo papers that listed old Honami papers as being part of the set. When the item was presented for sale to me this paper is now “lost”.

Those papers are not being lost.

The sword is going through the hands of someone corrupt who is fleecing it of the Honami paper. That Honami paper then is going into the vault until a mumei blade comes along that is the right length and just sufficient quality to fool a fool. As soon as that happens the paper will be attached to that blade and it will go onto a Japanese auction site and someone clueless is going to spend a lot of money buying it because it’s their lucky day.

I have also seen swords with a modern sayagaki where the blade was retrofitted to the shirasaya. In this case the papers will not be with the blade anymore because the papers went with the original blade, and someone took the shirasaya with the sayagaki and put it onto a piece of shit blade. Then straight to the auction site.

Such sellers again are not stupid people. They will mix in a handful of legitimate pieces with the fakes in order to legitimize the fakes. They will use the good items to build reputation and insulate themselves against criticism. People are far more likely to trust a guy who sells 75% good items with 25% fakes mixed in than they are to trust a guy who sells 100% fakes. The guy with all fake stuff eventually people figure that out. But the one who mixes in the fakes, he is the one that will take advantage of people’s greed.

Remember: you are your own worst enemy. Your desire to get that masterpiece, to beat the competition to it, to be the smart one who figured it out, to get something and pay much less than it’s worth, to get the respect of your peers, to get their envy, to win the game, to find the loophole, to defy the odds, all of that works against you making a reasonable decision. 

Every time you hear about the guy who did find that lucky masterpiece, all of that confirms to you that you can too. And you can, by all means, you can. But the problem is like when your friends tell you about that great stock they bought and it returned 10x or how they bought bitcoin so low and it made so much or how they went to the casino and won $100k… they are only telling you about their successes.

Every day they lost at the casino they don’t go online and document it. 

So you get a warped view of other people’s success. There are no end of celebrities who kill themselves or have massive drug problems or get caught doing something very untoward when the image we have received is of their perfect happy lives that we envy. It’s because they don’t project the failures, the unhappiness, the problems, the sadness and the failures that are common to all human beings. They only show the success.

Remember that.

It’s why you need to retain your skepticism. 

And don’t make the problem any worse by just clapping every time someone shows some piece of junk on the internet because you enable more of the same. You start dissolving people’s skepticism and without the skepticism there is no longer any place in this flowchart for something to end up being bad. And most of the time they are bad.

At the end of the day, if you know what you’re doing, that you’re going to the casino and it’s entertainment money for you, go right ahead. Use your money how you want to to enjoy yourself and nobody says this hobby has to be done in any particular way. I have my views on what is a productive collection and collecting goals but I don’t pretend those views are universally held.

If however you find yourself having to question the judgment of experts all the time and your friends are telling you such and such and bah humbug to anything that is other than giving you a great big hug for being such a smart boy, then that is a signal that you have a problem and are doing the wrong thing.

Here is the last word and it’s important.

Trawling

Stuff that goes to auction has to be found first. 

Cast a big net, buy up everything within reach, do the hard work, boots on the ground, examining all of the dusty corners, and that wide net brings in everything possible. 

They send it all for papers.

Some of it is good, and that goes to certain customers and certain avenues where they will get max valuation. That which isn’t good is bycatch.

Bycatch, in the fishing industry, is a fish or other marine species that is caught unintentionally while catching certain target species and target sizes of fish, crabs etc. Bycatch is either of a different species, the wrong sex, or is undersized or juvenile individuals of the target species. The term “bycatch” is also sometimes used for untargeted catch in other forms of animal harvesting or collecting.

So what do you do with bycatch?

You throw it back into the damn ocean and let the bottom feeders pick it over. In some cases you can just toss it in and someone will grab it. In other cases as mentioned above a little bit of help is necessary. There’s something like four “Masamune” for sale right now on various Japanese auction sites. Even though every reasonable person will know that those are no good, these sellers don’t care. Because they are not looking for the 90% of people who are reasonable, they are looking for the 10% of people who are dreamers. 

Stay skeptical and be aware that whatever treasure you are picking up at auction just might be something that someone else has already pooped out.

Maybe it’s your lucky day. It can be. The smarter and more you study the more likely it will be your lucky day. But more likely what you are looking at is someone else’s lucky day. And if you don’t study, if you don’t buy legitimate items, if you don’t get to museums and look, if you don’t handle top quality things, you will not refine your eye and your judgment. Particularly if you are not open to negative opinions without a fight, you won’t ever get anything honest from anyone and you won’t be able to learn.

My favorite analysis on an item I bought when I too was a clueless young idiot, was this:

It’s junk. Don’t buy stuff like this. It has no future.

— Bob Benson

Be open to that because that is what will guide you to what is truly great.

Disclaimer

Don’t take the above to mean that you can’t find a treasure. You can. People do it every day. Don’t take this to mean don’t try auctions. You can. People find great stuff at auctions and get it confirmed. The more skeptical and careful you are, the better you will be at separating the wheat from the chaff. 

A shotgun fired at a dartboard will hit the bullseye and it will also hit every other possible scoring point on the board and also hit the backboard and hit the wall. Out of all the pellets you will get one bullseye, a handful of near misses and a whole lot of uselessness. 

People firing that shotgun, if they go home and clap themselves on their back and congratulate themselves on their good aim, they are taking the wrong conclusion.

The guy who can throw darts and hit the bullseye (or rather, triple-20) three times with 3 tries, is the one who has the great aim. 

However if the cost is low to fire the shotgun, that does work. It’s like the trawling net above, it catches both the fish and the bycatch. Just continue to be skeptical about what you caught, analyze it, seek out good opinions, and by all means listen when they tell you it’s gimei or flunk it instead of saying that any expert who doesn’t tell you what you want to hear is flawed. 

Myself: I am not always right. I understand that and accept it. Sometimes items are confirmed that I don’t agree with, most recently a blade that passed Juyo with a big signature on it, I felt to not be correct when it was shown to me. The owner of that can crow that they had faith and other people were wrong.

In these cases I either have to learn more about the thing in question or I have real reasons that I can present about why I think that confirmation is not good. In other cases I have believed things to be legitimate and seen them not go through, in which case I try to learn from them or else if I want to hold on to the thought that it is legitimate I understand that with conservative opinions this holds true:

No can mean no, it can also mean not yet.

Yes means forever.

Nobody is helped by a system of liberal assignment of authenticity to items. Yes is forever and if they are given out willy nilly based on feelings and emotions and yes-it-could-be-ok then all opinions will rapidly lose any value. When an item is rejected, understand that the status quo is a moving target. More information is being unearthed, more items are being discovered, bodies of work are being modified on a daily basis. If you truly believe in something and it got rejected, it can be a situation of it being on the borderline of acceptability and with more time and study it might be allowed in the future. 

It is far more common that it’s simply gimei, but if you study and believe, if a paper is denied it’s not necessarily a screwup. It can just be a situation of we’re not ready to confirm this yet. Yes is forever so that means yes needs to be beyond a reasonable doubt, same as putting someone in jail for life.

 

Leave a Reply