Buying and Selling Japanese Swords
by Jim Kurrasch
This is definitely one of those areas where the more you know the better off you are. Here I am talking about really knowing and not just thinking that you know. Really knowing can allow one to buy a $10,000 sword for $1,000. Thinking that you know can allow one to buy a $1,000 sword for $10,000. Or $100 for $1,000, or $50 for $500. Japanese Swords more than almost all other hobbies allows one to put his manhood on the table and allows others to swing at it.
This is because the differences are so slight. To the uneducated the $50 sword looks just like the $1,000 sword, or the $10,000 sword, or the $100,000. To the highly studied Sword Expert (no I do not think myself to be one), there is a vast world of difference for each of those levels. I can pretty much tell the difference between the $50 sword and the $1,000 one. Or between the $1,000 one and the $10,000 one. But I can promise you that occasionally a I would not buy a $100,000 sword, for $1,000. This is due to my lack of knowledge, and not my not being willing to kick in the money.
I have purchased a sword for considerably over $10,000 (it rests in a safety deposit box). But that sword was well papered - appraised by a leading expert from Japan. I trust his opinion very much, so in this case all I did was know that this sword by this maker was considerably underpriced.
On my own appraisal, I have purchased a sword for over $5,000. And that was where I put my manhood on the line. This was after studying swords for over 15 years. Paying over $10,000 for sword books, and traveling 3 times to Japan to study swords. And there I was able to pick up and look at some of the finest swords the World has / will ever know.
Who and what you know?
So just what is it one needs to know to buy or sell a sword for the best profit? Part of this is what you know, and part is who you know. There are not many (percentage wise) swords in this World that are worth $100,000. And there also are not many persons (percentage wise) that would pay that for a sword no matter how good it is. But there are many swords (again percentage wise) that are not worth $100. And there are many persons (yes percentage wise) that will never pay more than $100.
There is also a pecking order in the buying or selling of swords. And that order is established mostly by knowledge. This allows a pyramid of sorts to form as to the price that a sword will sell for.
normal person selling - price sold for
one that knows nothing - $5 - $50
picker - $10 - $100
swap meet / pawn shop - $20 - $500
auction house - $50 - $250,000
dealers - $75 - $500,000
collector - pays $50 to $500,000
It quickly becomes obvious that it can be considerably better for all involved (except the middleman) to cut out as many of the middlemen as possible. If the normal person selling, sells directly to the ultimate collector, the seller can receive more and the buy can purchase cheaper, and all parties will be much happier (except again for the poor middleman).
Things involved in the value / price of a sword.
There are basically two things involved in the value of a sword. They are quality and condition. There are so called Japanese Swords, that are nothing more than cheap replicas. They are being made now, and almost every respectable Japanese Restaurant has one. And they made cheap replicas over 100 years ago and sold them to sailors, and tourists, who never got far from the boat, or cared to learn about the real thing. These are often just a piece of steel in the form of a sword. Their value to a sword collector is near nothing, but other collectors may value them more.
There are real swords made in traditional ways that never were intended to be a quality item. They were the saturday night specials, of Old Japan. Sometimes sold in bundles of swords, for times of war. Some of these do have age, but little value. In mid 1995 a dealer offered me a kikuchi yari (knife like type of spear, see separate article) for $800. It was in a good fresh polish, with new saya. The polish and saya probably cost someone $1,200. The blade was made about 650 years ago, but was never very high quality. That blade was made for the common foot soldier - the private first class types of Ancient Japan.
There are also Japanese Swords that were made by Master Craftsmen, for the high ranking Lords and Samurai. These are the type of blades that may go for the big bucks. And here provenance counts. If the blade comes with ancient documents stating that it was owned by this lord or that lord and passed on to such and such a person. That kind of thing can be worth quite a bit extra. Or sometimes a specific blade can be found in one of the old books. This type of book was made throughout sword history. And there are more recent copies of these books. They often have a ôshigata (drawing) of the blade, and sometimes the name of the owner and some past history. That is the kind of thing that is undisputable, and very valuable.
The next point that makes or breaks the value of a Japanese sword is it's condition. One can take one of the most valuable swords (for quality and provenance), and destroy it's value with one wrong hit. Yes these swords were made to hit things, but they were not made to be abused. The Samurai was taught many years the art of sword fighting, and knew the strong and weak points of those blades. But if one has a 700 year old sword and thinks that it is just as strong as when new, they are seriously wrong. That sword has been polished down for 700 years and is much thinner than it was. Also the nihontô was made to hit with the very tip of the blade, and exactely square on. Few modern swordsmen can do this, and to do anything else puts un-natural stress upon the blade, and may do irrepairable damage.
Other ways that blades lose considerable value;
1, They are tired = polished down to where the core steel shows, and much of the beauty is lost. This happened to many swords brought back from WWII. The new owner decided that the rust needed to be removed, and hence sanded them down, removing the outside steel, and changing the shapes considerably. Even if the core metal is not showing, the question is will it show after a proper polish reshapes the blade.
2, They are cracked = hagiri. This can happen, and the rest of the blade may look fine. But the value is about 5 to 15% of what it would be without the crack, since it would be no longer trusted to survive a battle. This is often very hard to see (even for experts). Look for similar vertical lines on either side of the blade.
3, Fire is a very big enemy of Japanese blades, and has consumed a great deal of them. Even if not completely destroyed, they are frequently altered to lose much or all of the value. What happens here is, the temperline is lost. The blade might be able to be retempered, but after it is, just what is this blade? If it was made by a old master 700 years ago, well ½ the making was in the forging, but ½ was in the temper. So after retempering the blade was forged by a Ancient Master, and tempered by a modern smith. Even the best modern smith can not come close to competing with some of the really great old masters. And the blade will lose much of it's value.
One of my friends sold a blade in 1995, that was made by one of the old masters about 650 years ago. It is listed in one of the old books (written 375 years ago), and had been passed down from Great General to Great General. This blade had it all. But that book also stated that it had been in a fire. The blade was sold for around $80,000 but if it had not been retempered it would have been one of the most valuable blades in existance, and possibly worth millions.
4a, Losing parts of the hamon. This is similar to losing the boshi (below). And frequently happens when the blade is chipped beyond where it can stand another polish. The hamon (temperline) is much of what the sword is about. If somebody wacks a sword so it must be polished down beyond the temperline to restore it the value decreases tremendously. One of the first swords I had polished was a small tanto (dagger) that was about 500 years old. I had paid $400 for this sword, and then $650 to get it polished. The polish took out a small portion of the temperline (maybe ¼ inch), and I wound up selling the sword for $600 (quite a loss, huh). At a recent gun show one of the best blades there (originally) was about 650 years old. I could see the original beauty in the blade, and I would have liked to have it. But someone had wacked something with it, taking several large chips out of the edge. Two of these went up very close to above the temperline. It would cost $3,500 to have this blade polished, and it might not make it. I could not find the owner, and it was just not worth the troubles. It's possible high side was that it may survive the polish, but would be shaped considerably different. It's possible low side would be near ruin after spending $3,500 for the polish and what ever the blade cost.
4b, Losing the boshi - tip. This frequently happened to old swords. The boshi took the brunt of the battle, and was designed too. But this meant that it could easily used beyond what it was made for. Repolishing the sword removes the hamon were it goes into the boshi, so the hamon is lost.
Getting the Best Value
Ah yes this is why you are reading this in the first place. Well the best advise is jump as many of the middle men as possible, and deal with as honest a person as possible. Treat them fairly and expect them to treat you fairly. If you deal with a person, and see them really hose another, just remember that you are in their food chain, and sooner or later will also be eaten. I find if we all are just treated as fairly as possible we all survive fairly well. Some of us do not get as many toys as possible, but we live and can sleep at night.
If you want to contact me please feel free to. I am not a dealer, and thus have no desire to buy every Japanese sword that I see. But I am fairly honest and know some fairly honest people that might be able to help you. Or I can give you some ideas, in your search.