|SOPHISTRY SUPREME |
by Robert E. Haynes
It would seem that I have lost touch with reality. I always thought I had a good knowledge of the Japanese sword and fitting auction market over the last forty-five years. It would now seem that I have no understanding of the current market. An auction has just taken place in London, at Sotheby's Auction House on April 10, 1997, that defies all that I had known about the sale of Japanese sword fittings. The two collections offered are well known to most collectors, and students of fittings. The first 32, single item lots, are listed as from "The Phyllis Sharpe Memorial Collection" (ne Robin Peverett collection). 23 of these lots have hakogaki by Masayuki Sasano. Twelve of these were sold, eleven were bought-in (BI). A comparison of those sold to those bought-in is very instructive. Lot 1, sold for 5175 pounds ($8435.), to an American buyer. Naturally one has to understand the difference between those tsuba sold outside of Japan, with hakogaki by Sasano, and those parts of his collection, which are now at the Sword Fitting Museum in Tokyo. The Sasano pieces in Japan were those he favored the most and those that were intended for the Museum. Those sold in the West were often duplicates, or those he felt were not intended to be part of the Museum collection. So one has to judge these pieces without taking into account the hakogaki, regardless of the grade he wrote in the box. Number 1 is a good example of this. It is an interesting study piece and may very well be Kamakura period, or it may be just bad condition. It would take very careful study to be sure which is true. Aesthetically not much of the original piece remains. The impressive size is certainly in its favor. There are a number of other iron plate tsuba of the Kamakura period in far better condition. I have no idea what could justify the sold price, as there were a number of other pieces in the sale of far superior quality, that were sold, or were even bought-in, at a fraction of the price of this tsuba. I am sorry to say I just do not understand!
Lot 2 also is a great surprise to me. I have never held this tsuba in my hand, but from what one can see in the photograph, it seems to have a very young plate, also this style of mokko shape plate would be very rare for the Kamakura period, unless the shape was changed later, which would be surprising, considering the size of the plate. In almost all cases I agree with the dates that Sasano ascribes to the early iron plate examples he has found, but I would need careful study of this piece to agree. It sold for 8625 pounds ($14,058.) which must be some kind of a record for early iron plate tsuba sold outside of Japan. Lot numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6, are all typical Muromachi Katchushi examples. Numbers 3 sold for 3105 pounds ($5061.), after the sale. Number 4 sold for 4025 pounds ($6560.). I can not see the slightest justification for the price of either. There are many equal, or superior examples, in the West that sell all the time for a tenth of these prices. Maybe it was just auction phone-to-house fever. Lot number 7 on the other hand, is a very rare example of a style of proto Kamakura bori style work and unique of its type. It was bought-in at 1000 pounds ($1630.). A very low price for such a very rare tsuba. Lot 8 is a good Onin style example, but nothing special. It sold for 2990 pounds ($4873.), several times its value. Lot 9 is a typical, but much later Kyo-sukashi tsuba, than the examples in the Tosogu no Kigen, pages 59-61. The price of 1840 pounds ($2999.) is very high for an Edo period Kyo-sukashi tsuba. Lot 10 I find very interesting. I put this tsuba in the second Compton sale for a reason. Despite the hakogaki, and pedigree, there was something that always bothered me about its age. I was never fully convinced that it was Muromachi period. It was a gift to Dr. Compton from Honami Nisshu and I think it was either recolored or reworked in some way. None of this seemed to stop its selling for $4620 on Oct. 22, 1992. In this sale it brought 2875 pounds ($4686.), a $66. profit in five years.
Lot 11 is a very good Kamkura style example. It never was given later hitsu-ana, and the condition seem excellent. I do not know what a similar example would sell for in Japan today, but I can not believe it would be the 4370 pounds ($7123.) it brought in this sale. This has to be the most expensive Kamakura-bori tsuba in either the East or the West. Lots 12 through 20 were very mixed. Lots 12 and 13 are good typical examples of their type and of no great merit. The prices they brought ($3374. and $5248.) were ridiculous. Lot 14 did not sell at 500 pounds ($937.), about what it was worth. Lot 15 sold at 920 pounds ($1499.), also what it was worth. Lot 16 deserved not to sell, as it is a very poor tsuba in all respects. Lot 17 is a very nice tsuba and of good quality, but I don't think it has 2990 pounds ($4873.) worth of quality. Lots 18 and 19 did not sell, and both were bought-in at 2000 pounds ($3260.) and 2600 pounds ($4696.), several times their value. Lot 20, the last of the iron plate tsuba, was bought-in at 500 pounds ($815.). This is a very fine and rare example of the best type of the early Heianjo tsuba. If the back side is in as good condition as the face it is worth much more than the buy-in price, by double or triple, naturally it did not have a hakogaki to inspire a buyer to guess he should pay such a price. Next we move on to the 12 lots of early soft metal tsuba. Only 5 of these 12 sold. Lot 21 may seem rare in the West. In Japan they can be bought with no great trouble. The price of 2875 pounds ($4686.) would buy a very fine large example in Japan. This small example is also rubbed and not in the best of condition. Lots 24,25, and 28 and 30 were the best of the Kagamishi examples. These are rare in the West, and though they can be found in Japan, they do not bring the reverence they inspire in the West. Lot 24 sold for 2530 pounds ($4123.), lot 25 sold for 3220 pounds ($5248.), lot 28 sold for the same price, and lot 30 sold for 2185 pounds ($3561.). Lots 22, 23, 26, 27, 29, 31, and 32, were all good examples of either small size Kagamishi or typical classic Ko-kinko tsuba that never seem to sell in the West no matter what the estimate is. They are a very neglected group of fittings. This finishes the Sharpe collection. It will be interesting to see if these prices carry on to future sales with similar examples, or if this was a one shot deal.
Lots 33 to 78 of this auction are from the collection of A.Z. Freeman. I knew Professor Freeman as a student and collector, though I never had the pleasure of viewing his collection. I knew well his interest and enthusiasm for iron plate tsuba, this we shared in common. The examples illustrated are all of merit, and show his particular interest in Akasaka, Yagyu, Owari, and Muromachi period tsuba. At the time that A.Z. was collecting it was still rather easy to acquire such examples, naturally in the later years of his collecting he found, as we all have, that this type of tsuba is now "popular" and not as available. Also many were not aware of the potential "problems" inherent in many of this type of tsuba. We used to accept Yagyu, Kanayama, Katchushi and Akasaka tsuba at face value. Today we know that there are many imitations, fakes, and reworked examples in almost all collections. We think of the two Iwata Norisuke as having made many Yamakichibei and Nobuie imitations. What is not so well known is the vast number of Yagyu, and even Kanayama tsuba, that they made. They were not alone in making imitations, there were a number of artists in both the Osaka and the Edo areas who were every bit as good as the Norisuke in this business. Naturally most of these are passed off in the West, and in Japan, as genuine. Since I have not held the examples in this sale in my hand I can not be sure of any of them. This is a classic example of a sale that you could not possibly buy from unless you had examined, in hand, the lots you wished to bid on. Thus it will be very hard to comment on many of the lots. The first lot to note is 37. This very early and unusual Kamakura-bori tsuba was bought-in at 400 pounds ($652.), a fine bargain at twice the price. Lot 66 was bought-in at 700 pounds ($1141.). Regardless whether or not it is Umetada work it seems to be a Momoyama tsuba of interest, and deserves study. The most expensive tsuba sold in the Freeman sale was lot 41, which brought 3104 pounds ($5061.). This design is very popular and we see other examples illustrated in many books. It is also typical of the type of Kanayama style tsuba that was being made by several imitators in the 1850-75 period. I hope at this price it is not one of them.
I will not discuss the swords sold in this sale. I will leave that to those who have far more knowledge than I do about such blades. What can be said is that the buyers at this auction were drawn by the Sasano hakogaki and the pieces that they might have known from the two collections. The usual buyers from Japan were nowhere in evidence. For two reasons. One, this type of tsuba has a far more limited market in Japan than most Western collectors know. Second, the prices paid for those they might be able to sell in Japan, was far higher than the going market, so the dealers would have no room for profit. Thus the majority of buyers were from the West, both the U.S. and several European counties. I hope the buyers had both knowledge and advice, for if they did not, they now own some very expensive tsuba that have set new prices and trends in the market.
This is why I said, at the beginning of this paper, that I personally do not understand this sale at all. The justification for the prices paid escapes me. The vast majority of pieces in the sale were nice second and third class examples, that we see in many collections in the West. If we are to judge tsuba on their intrinsic aesthetic value, then the prices paid in this sale would mean that the highest bids bought masterpieces, and these tsuba were certainly not masterpieces! The Monzino auction, of June 18, 1996, at Sotheby's in London, also brought some very high prices, but at least there were some rare, and very fine first class examples, in that sale. I wonder if all this is the trend of the future? I certainly hope not!
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