If the reader will bear with me, let's take a journey down memory lane to look at the development of how we buy and trade tsuba. As a preamble, my effort here is part history, part primer, part story, and just a few cautions. The overaching purpose is to provide the education for those who would benefit by it to purchase intently and intelligently. The pursuit is wonderfully and positively balanced against the inevitable agonies. It is hard work, but a labor of love and, oh, so worth it.
It suddenly strikes me that, as much as we complain about the scarcity of good tsuba, we are really very spoiled; indeed, it is relatively easy today to access information, sources, people, and results. The "how" has evolved considerably over time as, of course, has the nature of collecting itself and, with particularity, the collecting of tsuba. Think about it. In Japan, until the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868), tsuba were solely functional items attached to swords. The Japanese considered tsuba as personal possessions, not as collectibles. The easiest analogy would be to a samurai's sword and sword furniture. The more stunning, the greater the status and standing of the wearer. But art? Certainly not as such. And study? There was no study. Study is a pursuit of leisure, limited then to the elite or monastic. The premises of the study of the art form parallel the way tsuba were bought and sold. If one had wanted to collect antique tsuba, how would one have gone about it? Commencing in the early 1970's, the triad of modern art commerce was finally in place for tsuba: dealer, auction, and private sale. So, let's step back a moment and examine, in somewhat irreverent style, those three important means by which we acquire and dispose of our collections. Let's make the rather inane assumption that each of us has, in one way or another, bought a tsuba somewhere. That is entirely self-evident. Otherwise it is inconceivable that one would be reading this auspicious article in the first place. Oh, I suppose it is possible to do otherwise, but, let's face it, collecting/buying is what we are all about. It is why we meet periodically at the various Token Kai's. Study schmuddy. Camaraderie? Sure. But it is the auction and the congregation of dealers with tantalizing products that most of us can only drool at while smiling benignly as we hope against hope that somewhere there is a tsuba with our name on it.
The dealers. Yes, the dealers. The bane and boon of us all and the primary source of good tsuba. Gone are the days when the alternatives were limited, when one bought from one of the few who sold. Although stories abound, the generally-held view is that these dealers were wise, honest, and the antithesis of greedy. What have we today? Many more dealers, some marginal and some important. Some are well-studied and knowledgeable. Some have substantial owned inventory; most work mostly on consignment. The key here is to know the difference. There are no dealers upon whom I believe that I may rely implicitly; neither do I take their offering prices at face value. The issue should never be dealer fallibility. One can see that such is to be anticipated, and I say this without laying blame or embarrassment at the door of the dealer. The cautionary lesson here is misplaced reliance on the expertise of a dealer, any dealer. There is no substitute for the handling of thousands of tsuba (and/or to study the same from the myriad books and tomes available). Ultimately, there is no substitute for one's own judgment. Of course, stories of less-than-reputable dealers also abound, but I want neither your author nor this forum to have to engage in protracted litigation over the issue of libel, so I will eschew the opportunity, no matter how tempting. Suffice to say that until one is able to rely upon one's own judgement, it is essential to question, question, and question. Scans and e-mail are a useful way to get a quick opinion from others, but buy remotely only on approval. Try to develop relationships with dealers so that you will be permitted to examine your purchase with an option to return if not as described. Check out the pieces with more than one colleague. But please inquire. Good tsuba are expensive. Even bad tsuba can be expensive. I can't afford to make a mistake. Perhaps you can. Caveat Emptor!
The Auction House.
That brings us to the second part of the triad: auctions. The methodology and secrets of successful bidding and selling through the auction house are well beyond the scope of this article. What can be done here is to discuss the process, the benefits, and the inevitable pitfalls. Again, the focus here is the "how." If this discussion intimidates or deters a potential buyer, then I have failed. Indeed, buying at auction is a favorite method of purchase in that it combines competition with acquisition. Nonetheless, one must be cautious here because, just as there are potential problems in relying too heavily upon even reputable dealers, there are precious few Asian Art "specialists," as they are called, who specialize and have expertise in tsuba. Mostly, these specialists tend to excel in the area that makes the auction house the most money.
In the good old days, a collector utilized only one dealer who bid on his behalf and, as his representative, often with extremely salutary results. As the collecting populace multiplied, obvious problems with this practice arose, necessitating alterations. For one, collectors found themselves bidding against dealers who now needed stock and intuited correctly that the collector/ underbidder would come to the dealer later to buy the self-same piece at the requisitely inflated price. To the ever-hopeful buyer, the first brush with the auction process is the cataloge, which, of course, has to be purchased - although now the information and pictures are available on-line. We look through the book carefully and dog-ear the pages that contain lots of interest to us. We look at the estimates and take them for the general value parameters for which the auction house truly believes the items will sell. Now what? Understand important cataloging lingo, such as "signed by," "inscribed by," "attributed to," etc.
Are we able to personally view the lots of interest? (Condition is a big factor to most in valuation and desirability.) If not, and even if one can go in to view in person, try to get a local colleague or trusted dealer to act as one's eyes and/or to give a second opinion. Take a loupe. Examine from every angle. Handle and treat the experience as one similar to purchasing from a dealer, only in a far more limited period of time. Otherwise, one must rely upon condition reports in the catalogue, which auction houses are, for legal liability reasons, increasingly reluctant to provide for fear that you and I will rely upon them - a paradox. That, of course, is precisely the idea! It is ever more necessary, therefore, to have a trusted relationship with a specialist who will provide one with that essential information. For this, one need not rely on their expertise, just their eye.
Then make a decision about whether and how much to bid and do not waver from a pre-set limit in the frenzy of the actual auction whether you bid in person, by telephone, or, lately, via Internet. The only sure way to ensure to quell one's natural exuberance is to place an absentee bid that has a fixed upside limit. Never forget that the total cost will include a (typically) 20 percent buyer's premium and tax, where applicable. After a win, what now? Well, pay for it. Arrange for shipping and get the prized purchase. Right? Not so fast. Consider the additional expense of shipping internationally. That's my diatribe on the subject.
Thus, the pitfalls:
1) Unquestioning reliance upon catalogue descriptions and estimates;
2) Lack of understanding of cataloguing practices;
3) Failing to ask for detailed condition reports;
4) Undisciplined bidding;
5) International shipping costs.
With caution and prudence, buying at auction can be a fun and rewarding experience.
We come to the last part of the triad: sales and trades between collectors. If one cares to remember back to the beginning of this interminable article, this method of purchase and sale was, originally, the sole means of getting tsuba from one pair of hands into another. Two collectors are discussing their respective collections, and one tells the other that he just happens to have something that is just what the other is collecting at the moment and that he could be persuaded to part with it for the right price or, more often, for a piece of his that fits the same criteria. Should be easy. It is simple, clean, and.....fraught with peril. Sometimes it works marvelously. Recently, I went to view a colleague's study collection. I saw a piece I really coveted. After a lengthy study, he was considering his options for selling the piece. I ask him how much it would take to pry it from his collection. He asked me what I thought I wanted to pay. We agreed on a price and I brought it home with me. We are both very happy about the transaction. Sometimes it works not at all. The peril here is not that the transaction is not consummated; the peril is that the failure of the transaction affects the relationship. I don't worry about returning a piece to a dealer. That's business. I can fight with the auction house about shipping. But if I choose not to buy a piece from a friend or acquaintance, that's a Kyoto school horse of a different patina. Doing business with friends can be deleterious to a friendship. Caveat everybody!
This circuitous tour through tsuba time and space is at an end. It is elementary, to be sure. However, the point of this article - to the extent that there is one - is that we need to appreciate from whence we come and try to foresee where we might be going. Collectors complain these days that a good tsuba is hard to find. It is my prediction that it may get a lot worse before it gets better. There are many more experienced and passionate collectors than before - many with a bunch of money - each of us chasing our own Holy Grails, whose collections will recycle only upon our inevitable demise, whether real or financial, and even then, only if our spouses, children don't wish to keep the faith. The equations are pretty simple: more collections + more money = more and deeper and longer held collections; deeper and longer held collections = fewer and fewer tsuba for sale - whether by dealer or auction. Paradoxically, the fewer tsuba available to the public, the most successful way to acquire tsuba may once again be from another collector. And the tsuba world comes full circle, as all things always do.