The Engineering Triangle

This may have gotten its start in project management… we have a similar thing in software development that says, On Time, Stable, Cheap, “Pick Two.”

It talks about the necessary tradeoffs when building software. Executive level management pushes down and demands very high quality (bug-free) software, with a full set of features, delivered on time and under budget. This is a virtual impossibility as these constraints are usually chosen as independent variables but they affect each other.

In order for a piece of software to be stable you need an indefinite timeline as finding and solving bugs is not a problem you can put on a calendar and say “at this point we’re finished.” This puts it in conflict with the desire to be on time. You can solve that with a huge investment in testing and bug squashing resources, but that will inflate the budget. So if you want it delivered quickly and cheaply, by necessity it ends up not being very stable.

That’s about what you can get in reality.

This matter of tradeoffs applies to swords and collecting.

Desirability

Ultimately the price of a sword or any other collectable is based on its desirability. This desirability is measured in many parameters, some that are not covered in the basic triangle but may include length, history, having a name and so on. I’ll slap together a full list of features some time in the future.

But the basic three components of desirability (assuming any two works of parallel artistic integrity) are: health (how close to original state the body and kissaki of the sword are); signature (whether it’s been shortened, or shortened to the point it lost its signature, or was never signed in the first place); and affordability (no explanation necessary).

Your average collector will want a blade that’s 100% intact, retains the maker’s signature, and is cheap while being of highest artistic integrity. It’s not a huge leap to understand it’s not usually possible in an informed marketplace.

I asked an old Japanese dealer once, why the Ichimonji blades I had seen were often very beautiful but mumei, and the signed ones I saw were generally a bit beaten up. His answer was really simple: “Signed, healthy… JUBI!”

This basically implies that if one sword had both it would be papered to the topmost level and beyond the ability of most people to buy, and not likely to see on the market as high level collectors would hoard such a thing.

This came to mind recently in a conversation with a collector, where I lamented the behavior of some buyers… such a typical buyer will push to get a signed piece or some kind of rock-solid affirmation of who made a mumei piece (this kind of affirmation is impossible without a time machine). They will then park themselves and ultimately say, well, I want a guarantee of who made it. However, the only way to achieve the most true rock solid guarantee is with a signed piece. 

If you are able to produce a signed piece though, this buyer will then stand back and lament… well, if only this were more healthy I would buy it. 

This then falls to the third part of the triangle. Produce the ultimate goal of the signed, healthy koto tachi by a top ranked smith and they will tell you now: too expensive. 

You generally get to pick two out of that triangle if you are buying from an informed source. The way out of it is to get the lucky find at a garage sale, or be the only bidder to show up at an auction. 

But the take home thought is that some things really don’t exist in the marketplace. 

I encountered that while trying to sell a 74cm signed tachi by Osafune Mitsutada, who is on many lists as one of the top five or so makers of all time. He is the founder of the Osafune school and has a large number of Juyo Bunkazai and some Kokuho swords. It is very rare to encounter any at all in the marketplace, let alone a signed tachi of good length. 

The sword was ever so slightly not healthy, but not in a way to really detract too much from what it presented to the possible owners. It was a rare chance to get something that was at the very top of the list of high level collector’s goals.

The feedback I got from the west was… well, let me know when you find a more flamboyant one. I would just put my head in my hands and I would think, if it’s like this… and more flamboyant it’s going to be Juyo Bunkazai and there is no way you’ll ever want to pay that amount. But people would just go on their merry way waiting for a unicorn to arrive at their doorstep. 

In the end, I told the owner that the sword basically was not appropriate for the western market as collectors were not so capable of putting it in context of what it was, what it presented, and giving it the little bit of a break for the condition. And mind you, this is a Juyo Token blade and not in bad condition at all. Just, the expectations people had was for perfection and probably past the level that most Juyo Bunkazai have.

After a year of trying to sell it for him, I told him consign to a Japanese dealer who can present it to high level Japanese collectors who were capable of understanding what it is and where it lies in the context of the art form. 

And the dealer who took it in Japan sold it within about one month for almost double the price I was trying to get for it. 

As a result, western collectors really missed out on something great, a treasure that ended up going back to Japan.

It’s important in collecting, especially at the top level, to try to get an understanding of the context and what is achievable. When we’re dealing with rare smiths in the 700 to 1000 year old range, they have been used and polished over the years. Some unicorns exist but as this one dealer said, when they have it all, they get a “have it all” ranking and a have it all price comes along with it too.

It’s fine to want to have it all, but if you want to swim in the deep end of the pool, you better  have something more than water wings. Otherwise, be prepared for a couple of small compromises as they are what allow a piece to fall into a price range where it can be achieved by someone who didn’t start their own pharmaceutical company.

Drowning

There is one end-run around these rules that is not mentioned above, and that is when someone tries to out-wit the market and ends up buying a fake. The fake may show good health, signature, and also be cheap. To the buyer this is often considered my lucky day.

It’s not though. Such a person is ultimately motivated by the desire to buy something for less than it’s worth and these collections when shown are usually displayed with a monolog, “And this one only cost me this much, and I got this one for only that much, and …” 

The motivation in this case is just getting a deal, and congratulating oneself on the astute nature of the purchases. That desire to get a deal and break away from the buying triangle above… a situation where you can have it all but don’t pay for any of it, that can cause a collector to blind himself to some negative reality about the piece in question.

Some fakes go around from hand to hand as each clever buyer sends it to Japan to get it papered, to have it return with no paper and then the collector quickly dumps his treasure onto the next speculator’s hands. In reality, the tell tale signs are usually there on these types of blades if some study is done, education is had and a careful evaluation is made. Usually if it’s too good to be true, it will be. 

Sometimes and probably a few times in your life, it will indeed be your lucky day… but luck often comes to those who work hard at studying and increasing their knowledge and look under stones that were never turned over in the past. 

So I don’t mean to tell people that you won’t ever have that lucky day because if you stay in collecting long enough, you will indeed have it. Hopefully a few times. But the warning is to just be aware that waiting for unicorns may mean waiting forever, and the temptation to buy a fake may be there because your brain wants to throw a party for how smart it is. We’ve all done it at some point in our life. 

I once counted my profits on Nortel stock. I’ve been there too.