Kinds of Stuff

A lot of these posts come about starting with emails I’ve sent that answer questions or are just part of an ongoing conversation about swords.

This came up today, which were some thoughts about the kinds of stuff people buy and collect. I grouped them into five categories. Maybe it needs more thinking but I think I’m vaguely correct.

These categories are:

  1. Junk
  2. Commercial
  3. Art
  4. High Art
  5. Unicorn

Why we do what we do

Everyone has a general inclination toward desirable things. We disagree a bit on what exactly is desirable but in general we’re pursuing beautiful, impressive, rare, interesting items that have some historical merit to them. Each one of these elements is attractive to us: we may disagree a bit on what has artistic merit and what doesn’t, but we each believe we are pursuing artistic merit in our own way.

The major hurdles involved are education and budget. 

Budget I think needs no real discussion, what funds you have available controls your ability to make decisions. Open and shut. 

Education is more deep: any time you buy and own something you are furthering your own education, as well as any discussions you partake in, books you read, museums you visit and so forth. The more you educate yourself, the more you find out that you are on a path and by necessity there is some winding around and changing position as you move along this path. Your tastes will change along with the experiences you have.

The most important part of education is that if you study carefully you will be able to correctly identify the high points. For instance, if one only ever sees rusty blades then all one can ever understand is the spectrum of quality presented by rusty blades. This is a very narrow spectrum as the most they can demonstrate is shape. 

As you expand your scope of experience you will naturally understand a wider range of quality. 

Imagine again that one only ever saw Shinto swords. Never Shinshinto and never Koto. Your eyes would be set by Shinto blades, and the best Shinto blade you ever saw would be your expectation for 100% quality and artistic merit. The best Shinto swords are quite excellent but they do not match with the best Koto works. 

The moment one is exposed to say, a masterpiece of Soshu Yukimitsu, then alarm bells would go off and your expectations would be reset. So the more you go out and look and experience, the more you can judge what the 10/10 item is really like. If the best you ever saw was only 4/10, then in your mind, 4/10 represents a perfect score.

Now, that said, when we get into the five categories, these two aspects above are what drives people into buying items in those categories.

Junk

There is nothing wrong with good old junk. It is not trying to be something that it is not. If you have a beer budget, you buy beer. It’s not expensive and it fills its function. Will it stand with a good cognac? Nope. But 12 beers do what 12 beers were intended to do. 

The best part about junk is that it is already priced as low as it will go. Everyone can afford junk. Not everyone wants it. But if you have no options to buy higher then it’s fine, if you are enthusiastic and you can deal with its limitations, enjoy.

The only problem one gets is when one’s education level is such that junk is confused for something better than what it is. In that case, you can end up spending a lot of money pursuing this that is better allocated into something higher level. So, be careful about budget and how you spend it. 

Commercial

This is where a lot of the danger is. As education increases, commercial grade items which are clearly above the junk level become appealing. There is a perception of value here that this kind of item is a good buy, it is cheap. Often this kind of piece is exactly as it was intended: a tool, a killing tool in the case of swords. The Dodge Minivan of the Edo period, it fulfills its task admirably and adequately and never intended to masquerade as anything more than filling this role.

If this is the best you can buy, it’s fine. This is adequate. This is an honest to goodness samurai sword that a samurai used to defend his life. Going too wide, into infinite examples of commercial grade items though is not smart. 

Most items on the market are commercial grade, and some of these are also what I call scratch-n-dent specials. Again, there is nothing wrong with this if this is the highest you can reach for. But a lot of these items will surf again on perception of value where this object here, at a discount, is seen to be almost as good as that object there, at full price. The difference is that this one has some horribly wrong stuff going on with it. That’s why it has its discount. 

Again this is straight forward and honest and important that people understand this. There is no problem buying such a thing as long as you understand what you are doing. But if you reach out to take it thinking that today’s your lucky day and oh what a bargain I got, this is almost as good as the perfect one, then you are doing it wrong. 

The market is efficient. The perfect example is expensive because it is a perfect example. The damaged item is discounted because it is a damaged item. This makes the decision to buy one or the other exactly equivalent. The question is only, what does your budget represent? 

Say if someone wanted to buy a Masamune and they could never afford or find a perfect quality Juyo example, would they settle for a worn out tanto? The answer is yes. Because if that is the best Masamune they can find and they could only barely afford that one, that is the one they should go for. Or, they could instead buy some great condition lesser smiths, but it would not have the same allure as a Masamune. If you can afford and you have the opportunity to find a perfect Masamune though, you should not buy the imperfect one because it will just get in the way of the rest of your collecting. So, two guys should go for that kind of imperfect Masamune then: guys with infinite budget, and guys with a “small” budget that can’t afford anything better.

This logic applies to whatever the level of the maker is. If you want Kanemitsu, and cannot afford an ubu 90 cm Juyo Bunkazai one, well, you buy a suriage Juyo one that is otherwise great. If you cannot afford the suriage Juyo one in great condition, you buy a beat up one that can’t pass Juyo or barely passed. If you can’t afford that one, you buy one of his students. And so on down the line until you find that crossover between budget and desirability of the item in question. 

Again: the only problem is if you conflate the weaker example with the higher example or think for some reason you won because your weaker example was half the price of the strong example. This kind of thinking has you ending up buying two weak examples instead of one strong example. And if you repeat that logic again you have four weak ones instead of two strong ones. Until you end up somewhere down the line with 20 weak examples instead of 10 strong ones: now you done messed up badly because by repeating the logic you prioritized quantity over quality. 

If it were food, and you ordered two plates of bad tasting food instead of one plate of good tasting food, you can see how this would be a bad mistake. 

So commercial grade and scratch n dent specials have their place in collecting. As with junk, if this is what your budget dictates this is what you should settle on. It’s better to have three commercial grade pieces than 10 pieces of junk. And that logic also extends itself upstream.

Art

This is the nice secure place to be. It is an expensive place to be. The smiths who are famous for making art generally made high quality premium items in their time. A smith like Rai Kunitoshi was famous in his lifetime. So this guy has been famous for 700 years. Every sword book written touches on his name. He will be famous for another 700 years and as long as there are human beings he will remain famous. 

So, most people would like to own a work by a smith like that. They were owned by the important daimyo families and the Shoguns and noblemen and high level retainers and were given as gifts. This level roughly equates to blades that would pass Juyo Token or possess the attributes associated with Juyo Token. The problem here is only budget. Not everyone has the available money to pursue this, but again, if you can then you should be looking to omit the lower categories. 

There is no point in owning 100 pieces of commercial grade item and having no artworks. 

None.

It is a huge money sink and you would be wasting your time. This is the place where you would learn, this is the place where you can have the most satisfaction, beyond simply owning a historical item and one that is sufficient to defend a samurai’s life with.

Budget should always be balancing out the kind of item that you are going for. If you can afford beer, buy beer and nothing is wrong with that. If you can afford champagne, you should buy champagne. 

Woe be on the guy who buys beer at a champagne price though. This is danger territory so make sure to advance your education, and understand that 4/10 is not 10/10 before you blow your money.

High Art

Every collector who progresses for some degree of time in any field will sort out the precious and interesting items provided they attend to their education. 

Every collector who extends a collection of art will start to understand that there are best examples of whatever the subject matter is. They are those that are in better preservation or more artistic merit or other bells and whistles. 

If a generic work of Kotetsu represents art (it does) then his masterpiece represents high art. If a suriage Kanemitsu represents art then a sword of equal condition and beauty but retaining his signature would represent high art. If a Tadayoshi represents art, then a signed and dated one, custom ordered by a daimyo, with a cutting test represents high art. 

These are the special rare vintage type items that are the top 10% of the art type items for whatever reasons come to mind. This level roughly equates to Tokubetsu Juyo or items that possess Tokubetsu Juyo qualities. They are best of breed, not easy to obtain because they are not laying around in store windows and when found… expensive. But for a collector with means at his disposal who can aim for this level, they are sought after and very desirable. 

Generally an experienced collector who has invested a lot of time and money in his collection will have a few of these as highlights in a collection that is mostly art objects. His collection may also have some commercial grade or even a piece of junk or two that have some kind of interest associated with them or even sentimentality. This is the first sword I ever bought is one common reason. Such a blade is often spoken about by an experienced collector with a mixed degree of affection and terror over what he acquired, but also looking back at the first sword bought reminds this kind of collector of the territory he’s covered since that time and that he has grown and changed. So these pieces are almost always remembered well, if not kept around, even when someone has acquired high art. 

Often times collector/dealers will engage in sales of junk, and commercial grade pieces which they enthusiastically sell to less experienced collectors in order to fund their own appreciation for art and high art. It is like a conveyor belt of sorts where the items flow in one direction and the collectors slowly walk upstream, upgrading their collections and selling off their lower level items. 

This brings us then to the ultimate category, where few people tread. Either unlimited funds that can knock down walls, or the kind of luck that it takes to get struck by lightning and walk away unscathed is required to be here. 

Unicorn

There are these items out there, lost masterpieces which are found at a garage sale, or preciously closely held masterpieces in Japan that decades of friendship and good business practices can unlock. 

Each of those two routes strikes eventually as long as you stay in the game, and if you are more than a little bit lucky. But the longer you are around, the more likely it is that you will find your unicorn. 

Dealers can all tell you tales of a lost Juyo Bijutsuhin that was found and how it rapidly changed hands from the discoverer who bought it for a couple hundred bucks to the big game hunter who ended up with it after polish and handling by top level dealers and put it into his permanent collection. Sometimes the guy who found it understood what he found and he retains it, and only a few people will ever know.

Sometimes a quick and fierce bidding war will come around when these pieces are discovered out of the woodwork and the guy who happened to be there on the scene with a check in hand is the guy who gets to walk away with the prize. That kind of prize when brought back to Japan will catch the eye of the top collectors who would move mountains to obtain such a piece, because in some cases, they are the only one of their kind that exists.

A chance to find or own one of the few Juyo Bijutsuhin that are outside of Japan (legitimately), or a sword by Masamune, or the only signed and dated tachi by Hiromitsu, these are once in a lifetime things for most people. When the item is rare, or unique, it will always be desired though few can afford them on the open market. Sometimes chance brings them to you: the most lucky find them and don’t pay near market price, but even if you do pay market price for something that is unique or impossible to otherwise acquire, you are still lucky.

Other unicorn examples would be things like Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal Sadamune wakizashi. A perfect, ubu, mint condition, long and beautiful Saburo Kunimune tachi. Any of the blades from the Kyoho Meibutsu-cho. 

These are the kinds of pieces that great collectors can hold out and show to their peers and receive a mix of envy and admiration back (ideally mostly admiration, but how can you not envy a guy who found a Jubi or acquired a Masamune?)

On the open market, it can even be that you have the available funds but unicorns are not around to buy. Knowing who to ask, and who knows who and who might have one that is ready to come out of hiding is a matter of time, patience and friendships. 

It can often be the case where two lucky owners of unicorns will look jealously at each other’s pet and say wow, I wish I had that guy’s luck.

If you ever got a unicorn you know it and you are very lucky. As I am typing this many names of collectors I know who had their moment are going through my mind and I would like to have each one of their unicorns, as would you. The dream one day to find and own such a thing motivates us all to some degree.

For those who will never have the budget to pursue one in the market, there is always the chance of just being lucky and stumbling into one. And for those who never get lucky, there at least is the dream of luck.

And then it’s also OK to be realistic and to set your goals accordingly. It may be that the best you could ever buy is a commercial grade item, and that day when you get your chance to buy that sword, it’s one you can have a lot of pride in. That sword is your own unicorn. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.