Buying Big Named Blades

by Jim Kurrasch

The following article by me actually promotes 2 opinions. While this seems somewhat schizophrenic it has more to do with the fact that very little is “black and white”. Everything is a shade of gray. And to make matters worse which shade of gray varies as one gains more experience.

OK, since I have been ranting and raving about the blades for sale lately, I better start the return trip to reality. At a recent meeting I was talking to one of our fairly new members. The absolute facts in this really do not matter, since the problem has been here for hundreds of years. The other thing is all people involved are very nice people, and tend to be pretty honest and down home folks.

I am also sure that the new member, will learn, and after 10 or 20 years will have a very fine collection, but he is still in his learning phrase (hell I am still in my learning phrase, and as far as Japanese Swords are concerned I am barely out of diapers). Anyway he had seen a big named sword at a recent gun show, and it had a big price on it. Upon hearing this without even thinking I said “Bulls*it”. Sam Oyama was in the group and had seen that blade, he agreed with me, that it was not that smiths work.

Now the fact of life for the new members out there, and this can be a refresher course for the “experienced collector”. There are no big named swords out there without papers, and very few papers can really be trusted. You will Not find a Masamune, Sadamune, Rai blade, Ichimonji, Umetada, any of Masamune’s or Sadamune’s Students or other big named sword out there for big prices without papers. All similar swords were known in Japan and have been written about somewhere. Occasionally one does come out of the woodwork, but that means that the prices are fairly low. If the seller is trying to sweet talk you into really believing that he has a super blade just say NO. If they say that it has the possibility of being the signature just say “Bulls*it!”

And if the dealer is disguising himself as a Sensei be extremely wary. Anyone that sells more than 5 or 6 blades a year is a dealer no matter what they call themselves. And they must first be known as a dealer, with all of the dealer traits. It is fine to learn what you can from dealers, just make sure to define them as dealers. And if they get uptight and state that they are not a dealer, ask them if they feel like having the IRS make the decision?

Let’s use a completely made up example. Let’s say I have a blade signed Masamune. And I want only $10,000 for it. If I really thought that it is a Masamune believe you me the first thing that I would do is send it to Japan for polish and papers. I would be willing to put everything I own on the line to get that blade papered. Then I would sell it for $100,000 or more. Do you really think that a dealer or a sensei is going to give you an important blade for a fire sale price? And I would tend to be more sympathetic towards the dealer, at least they can plead stupidity.

If you are going to pay big prices demand big papers. And to be really honest the only papers that you can completely trust are from the NTHK (Yoshikawa’s Group). They have always been extremely harsh with their grading, and it is their policy that to receive papers the blade must be 100% correct. This leaves many fine and honest blades being turned down by them for papers. But when a blade has their papers it IS what the papers say it is.

The NTHK’s papers are the only ones that take full responsibility for their appraisals. The NTHK states which is sho-shin and means authentic on the front of their papers in the center column. This leaves them open to lawsuits if they are wrong. The other groups only state their opinion, meaning if they are wrong “Oh well it was only a opinion”. This causes the NTHK to make very conservative statements. But when they make a Important kantei it is correct and there is no fine print to hide behind.

A fact to note is there are many dealers that absolutely do not like NTHK papers. When I was recently asked “Who papers do I prefer?” My question was “Am I buying or selling?” If I am buying I want NTHK papers since they absolutely do not fudge. But if I was a dealer, and trying to get my blades papered I would get the papers of the easiest group around. And then I would “hype” those papers. If you ever hear a dealer putting down the NTHK’s papers, you know that they are just that a dealer. And you will probably be better off only asking their opinion on something they understand, like; “Which color of sword bag goes best with the saya?”, or “Which Ginzu Knife works best for general work around the kitchen?” I am not saying do not buy from them, just do not give their opinion too much weight.

The NBTHK is a very fine and honorable group. Unfortunately partly because of their fame they have had problems. Some of their papers have been forged, and occasionally they have had dishonest Judges at the local level. Their Jūyō and other Main Branch papers are good, if they are not forgeries. But occasionally their out-lying branch papers have had problems.

Then there are the dealers papers. These are usually the most questionable. Lets face it the dealers are there for profit. They and others like them will only make real money by selling big name blades. So their standards tend to be lower. I have used them and shall use them in the future, but their level of confidence is lower than the NBTHK or NTHK.

Now there is nothing wrong with buying a beautiful mumei blade if you pay a fair price. And it’s maker in fact may actually be a big name, but as far as you are concerned if it does not have papers it is just a beautiful mumei blade, and the price should reflect that. If it has a big signature consider it gimei unless it is papered by a reliable group, and pay accordingly. If it actually was that maker it would have been quickly sent to Japan for papers long ago. Or it would have received papers from one of the groups that come here. Big named papers are given out here for a completely honest blade.

The next point is judging a big name yourself. first off do not trust the dealers opinions. Most in the U.S. have probably never even seen a big named blade unless it was at a sword show or club meeting. And almost none have ever had time or inclination to really hold and study a big named blade. What they ee are fair blades with big names, and that is their base of judgment. They are not being completely dishonest, they just do not know. There use to be a dealer around that got dumber with the more experience he received. Basically for him it was “convenience to not know”.

How can you judge if a blade is really great? Totally ignore the signature, unless it is papered as such. The one most important thing that you will be able to learn as to how good the blade is without saying who made it is the activity in the blade. Almost any great blade will have activity that will knock your socks off, and when was the last time that happened at a gun show. There will be kinsuji, inazuma, chikei, ko-nie of 10 colors, and the blade will be SO completely covered with nie. Again when was the last time that you saw that at a gun show. There are some nioi-deki blades that have absolutely beautiful hamon with no nie. As you look down the hamon it just seems to be on fire and have a 3 dimensional look.

So how do you see these things? This is more difficult. I remember one my first trip to Japan with Sensei Yumoto, while in the Sword Museum I asked one of the foremost authorities to show me kinsuji. He was embarrassed that I had asked him such a basic question, and had his son show me. And I still could not see the kinsuji shown me.

Well that brings up another point. On Sensei Yumoto’s Tours I was able to hold and study some of the World’s finest Japanese Blades, but I was not really able to “See them”. There were 2 basic problems. 1; I was not ready! I was just working too much to be able to study the amount necessary. And good blades had not been really available for me to study. 2; The condition of the blades. One can have the world’s finest blade, but if it has a poor polish nothing will be seen. Or one can give the world’s finest blade the world’s best polish, and if not taken proper care of in 100 years little will be seen. I am not talking about rust here. But a build-up of something that just veils everything.

Let’s face it most of the world’s finest blades are in Japan. Nobody would uchiko a great blade everyday of it’s life, and that is not needed. But many of these blades are put away for long periods of time, and only lightly uchikoed when taken out. This is right, even uchiko will wear down a blade, if frequently done for hundreds of years. And the finest blades should be lovingly cared for and protected from harm. Yes it is my opinion that the protector should be willing to lay down their life to protect a great blade from harm.

So what do you do? You must truly study blades. Closely examine the best examples that you can see. Look at the hamon intensely. Bring a small flashlight with you when you go to view displays behind glass. Use it to light the blade in various ways to see the most. In a way this may seem rude, to so examine a blade. But the true collectors will understand, and in applaud your efforts.

You may want to ask before hand if they mind, and which blades they would recommend to learn from. I remember a very upset owner one time when I looked a one of his blades too closely (it had a major flaw, but I did not state this).

The next part is more difficult. You must study a good blade in good polish. It all does not have to be in good polish, if only part of it is clean study that part. Hagiri or shintetsū will not bother your efforts either, study the good parts. If you can buy such a blade for a reasonable price buy it. Then you can study it to your hearts content.

Uchiko the hell out of that blade. You will get to a point with uchiko where you will start to lose details that you had seen before. That is a good place to stop for a while. After a month or so uchiko again, but this time with less force. If you are working with a good blade, you will be seeing more and more things. Some of the blurs along the hamon will turn into ko-nie. Then some groups of ko-nie will turn into sunagashi. Some of the sunagashi will turn into kinsuji and inazuma. And you may even find the nie of 10 colors.

As you go through this process with several good blades, studying them for hundreds of hours (enjoyable but time consuming), you will start to be able to notice the activity at earlier and earlier stages of the clean-up. Also it may take some time before you see results. I have been working on a sword for 5+ years and have finally started to see some life, but then only in certain light. So maybe in another 5 years it will appear to be something other than a polished out blade. From the start I had known that it had kinsuji and inazuma, but they did not have much life.

Also try using different light sources, and find out what works the best for you, and when looking at what. A distant point source is good for looking down the hamon, and seeing the general workings. A diffuse light behind you will often show the nie, and activity to advantage. A florescent light may help you see the utsuri, and very fine jitetsu (actually a broad diffuse source may be the secret). Lights of different intensities may give different results, experiment. Learn what works for you. When you are buying a blade the light will not be perfect, so allow for that or find a different light.

“Nie of 10 colors” is a effect where the nie is so excellent that it refracts the light. This will give a “rainbow effect” with each nie. So when pointed towards a point source of white light at a certain angle, the nie will just sparkle all of the colors of the rainbow at you. Try not to be overly excitable here, it is not that hard to find a blade that gives white, yellow and shades of orange light from a incandescent light. But what is difficult is finding a blade that gives all of the colors of the rainbow.

You will notice how the kinsuji or inazuma is a completely different color than the nie. How it is Sooo much more brilliant, much like small lines of mirror in the steel. You may notice how some will stand out from others. How they appear rounded and 3 dimensional.

When evaluating the color of the steel, the color of the source light is very important. Use a mirror to find out what a perfect steel would look like. And next time you see a “blue sky” take a really good look at it. Just what color is it. That is “bluer” than the finest Japanese steels, and it is a good light source for looking at your blades. How much blue of the sky is reflected from your blade. Do this test when pointing the blade towards a patch of blue sky, and not the sun. Compare many blades of different known quality until you can see the difference. For me this is one of the hardest tests to evaluate. Maybe I need a more active imagination.

Sensei Yumoto once told another Japanese sword expert that he was better at judging swords, since he had to judge them in the condition that they are found in the U.S. Now believe me that Japan does have a abundance of swords in poor condition, red rust and all. But they tend to be swords of lesser value.

In the U.S. we can still occasionally find a really great sword in poor condition at a cheap price. To do this first you must learn to read the sword. Learning to read the Big Names only causes most inexperienced sword collectors more problems than not reading kanji at all. And after you think you have found one of the great swords, you get to put your manhood on the line. You get to pay for a polish, and submit it for papers. If you have done what I have told you, it will do well. But very few will actually do their homework, so they will have to rely on vast quantities of BS to sell their mistakes.

But I disagree that we are never going to see a big named blade. The U.S. abounds in big named blades. And some of those are very real. Some of the greats came out of Japan 115 years ago after the ban on wearing Swords. Some came out due to the interest by curious Westerners. Some came out after W.W.II. And a great many came out with the Japanese families that left Japan for whatever reason.

I can not say what is happening in the other parts of the World. But in California there is a large number of Hizen-to. I view this as partially due to the people of Kyushu being more “open” to foreigners. Hence they had a greater tendency to leave Japan than the Northerners. And of course they took their family blades, many of which were from their area.

About 7 or 8 years ago a healthy ubu katana with a long “Muramasa” signature came out of the Eastern U.S. The owner was paid $3,000. About 10 years ago a katana by Kotetsū, with fabulous fittings all papered by the Big names of the past was purchased for $3,000. And about 20 years ago a dealer friend of mine sold a tired tanto for $800. The Japanese dealer who bought it later informed him that the Japanese “Experts” found it to be a “Masamune”. I personally know of 4 “Rai Kunimitsu” blades in the Western U.S. 2 tachi, and 2 tanto. 3 of these blades have been authenticated by the “Experts”, The 4th. has been seen by persons knowledgeable about telling very good swords, but not the exact smith. By the way one of those tachi was good enough so that Yoshikawa Sensei’s mouth dropped open on seeing it. This blade may be a Rai Kunitoshi, my sources recall the name differently. I was in the kantei room but did not have time to look at it. ‘What a bummer’.

So in the U.S. we can find great swords and pull them out of the woodwork. And these are occasionally at very low prices. But how many know when they should be happy to kick in $3,000, $5,000, $10,000. And when to bar the doors, mortgage the house, and be willing to throw in everything they own to buy a sword. 10 years ago I was in Japan with Sensei Yumoto. Another of the persons present said he had heard that one of the tsuba at the Osaka Show of the NBTHK was for sale for $250,000. Sensei Yumoto stated that if it was only $250,000 he would be happy to mortgage his house to buy it.

So the actual big names blades are here. But there are far-far more blades and of course fittings with gi-mei big names. Who is able to tell which is which? Where to put the big money down and where to laugh and run. Also we have quite a few mu-mei blades by famous makers, And they tend to go for a fraction of what they are worth. But they can still make Jūyō , if you know enough to send them.

So I may never be able to say with any confidence that “This is a Masamune” or “This is a Ichimonji blade.” But I can occasionally say “This is a very good blade, and I should buy it”. And that is from studying the big named smiths.