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The value of a sword


1. Knowledgeable, knows what he wants, but blessed with so much money that it doesn't matter if it is overpriced. 2. Naïve, but trusting. Buying into the hype provided by a dealer about sword "A", and made to believe that it is the pick of the litter and very exclusive. He's flattered and encouraged to return. As with type 1., he has so much money that it never occurs to him to seek other expert opinions about his recent acquisition. He will only find out the hard truth when it comes time to sell his sword, and no one wants to pay anything close to what he paid for it originally.


Not everything is a scam.

Sometimes it is indeed the pick of the litter. There was a Gojo in San Francisco last year that was in immaculate condition. The owner had a six figure plus-plus figure on it. Worth every penny. Pick of the litter.

Anyone who knows swords should want that sword. Few can or could afford it.

You have a depressing false dichotomy there that a buyer of high end items needs either to be rich and not care about wasting his money or else a fool who is easily tricked. Buyers of swords tend to be really thoughtful and quite smart with their money and come from fields that require a lot of education. I have never had a rock star or a guy fresh out of college who just signed an NFL contract and is pouring his wallet out come and ask me for a sword.

It's been CEOs who run high level businesses, bankers, doctors, lawyers, scholars, martial artists, computer programmers, entrepreneurs and small business operators. Generally guys with smarts that earned them money and often with business backgrounds that are absolutely contrary to throwing cash away and/or being naive about making business deals.

Swords actually among collectables are pretty good in terms of them having a low multiple between commodity and highly desirable items. You don't see the same thing in diamonds where a 4% difference can generate the price being doubled. Or baseball cards say where very fine differences in condition create arbitrary categories into which items that are pieces of paper printed by machines become highly valued in increasing price buckets.

With swords you have the option to buy something that is a commodity blade like a Chu-jo shinto wakizashi (it was made as a self defense tool and it is a commodity now) vs. something that is a historical artifact, like if you could have a good condition signed ubu Shintogo Kunimitsu tachi you would be in the possession of something which is an essential part of history and a cultural treasure as well as an artistic masterpiece.

Buyers perceive value then, if you can say own 10 commodity pieces vs. one high level art item... and I agree with them. Some guys would rather have 30 x $10k swords instead of one Tokubetsu Juyo Sadamune. This makes them happy to have a collection and that's what they want. The guy who buys the Sadamune though, neither of these guys can quite look straight at the other. The large collection guy says what a waste and a ripoff and a conjob to dump so much into "just a sword" and the guy with the Sadamune looks back and says, "how much time does that guy have to invest in oiling all that junk?"

Exclusivity is something that people should be able to measure objectively. If you have a signed and dated Rai Kunitoshi you can count the others that are known in public and make some kind of decision about how relatively rare it is what you have. If you have one with a date that is earlier than written in every book going back 600 years then you might be able to make the conclusion that you have the earliest one that exists. And therein lies something special. Or if you have the one where he wrote he was 75 years old on it when he made it. That counts a lot.

The same way that getting a D color diamond over an E color diamond counts a lot, but maybe the difference is lost on people who are not deeply involved in the subject matter.

What people are trying to do when they are going into the high end and rare items is that they are trying to set themselves criteria to decide if something is worth enjoying or owning. It is a limiter that says yes I really like that but it is not fitting what I need it to fit if I am going to own it.

There are many other psychologies out there from tire kickers who just feel special when they're treated like a player, to the hunters who get a charge out of the finding and the acquiring but owning sadly sucks up his capital for the next hunt so needs to sell as often as he buys, to the remorseful buyer who immediately questions anything he buys and feels sadness and pain in ownership instead of joy. And there are the long horizon collectors who judge everything calmly and make decisions over years because they are in this for 40 and this is a pleasure to them to contemplate the purchase instead of rush in, the collector collector who enjoys owning before buying and selling so is chiefly concerned with just having what he has and enjoying it, to the art appreciator who is just infatuated with beauty and thinks about this first above everything, to the history buff who is excited because this sword connects him to some kind of past, maybe to a tangible past and real person who owned this sword and he can read about, to the investor who cares about nothing except that his exit price be higher than his entry price.

In truth everyone is a bit of a blend of these archetypes and they all factor in somehow to how we approach buying something. Some of course have more emphasis in one of these dimensions than in others and some of them are not so healthy to let take over your decisions.

But the high end guy, it's very hard to argue against him if he wants to pursue the very best and will pay for them. As you get to the top of the sword pyramid there are fewer items to compare against. Each item starts becoming unique.

How much should the Hachimonji Chogi be worth? I have seen more beautiful Chogi. But this blade is famous because someone is said to have cut a horseman in half with it (like the number 8 -> 八). It is huge and massive and the owner of that one is going to rejoice in the old story which we would have trouble believing now and that it has been well known and appreciated for such a long period of time. I had a chance to hold that blade and it feels like it could cut through a tank. But, not so pretty.

So... can we plug the Hachimonji Chogi into a spreadsheet and calculate a proper value for it based on length and percentages and Sai-jo saku and so forth... nope. It is a unique object, it is an artifact and as a result, it will be a discussion between whomever owns it and whomever buys it and how they feel currently between their need to have the blade and their need to have some numbers in a bank account.

Some of these items are universally desirable (or nearly so) but are not affordable. Like a guy who hauls a 10 kilo slab of gold into a village in Burma, maybe he can't get the price he wants for it from his immediate marketplace but this doesn't mean his price is necessarily too high, it is that the 10kg chunk of gold is not so liquid in his chosen market, or the entire market (you can scale that number up and as you scale the size up you will get less and less liquid no matter how big your market is).

The items in question that brought up this discussion are 3 Shikkake blades and it seems that some have the perception then that one may be over priced, one under priced and I guess the other one is just right. Because there are three how can it be otherwise...

At the far end of the spectrum you have a combination of high supply and good quality (Omi Daijo Tadahiro is the man). With this, we get the closest we can get to the pricing models working well. There are enough around that you can price compare, condition is very similar with most blades unless it's been accidented somehow in its history. They are going to almost all be ubu and well made and you can start then plugging in these minor details and also you have so many examples around you can come to a conclusion about what "the price should be."

Western collectors tend to be guided by the papers very easily and in this case we have three Juyo Shikkake and I think the conclusion that they should all be the same price -or- that one is overpriced is not correct for a few reasons.

For me, of the three the one I like best is the short one on Aoi because it has the nicest jigane and it appeals to me. But I know a lot of collectors who will not consider anything below 70cm. They would tell me I am a fool and flushing my money down the toilet, because the blade is not long enough to own. They would buy a longer one, for a higher price, with less visible quality in the ji.

Who is wrong and who is right?

This is entirely subjective about what parameters are more valuable to an individual. I think the only thing that we could agree on, me and the theoretical long sword buyer, is that if I put my jigane on his long sword then it would be more expensive than either of ours. That is, the blade shifted up the exclusivity scale. It becomes progressively rarer, and in fact exponentially so, the more positive attributes you slap on a blade.

Where we have many thousands of ubu zaimei Omi Daijo to choose from, just by doubling the age of the blade we end up in situations where there may be one or none. So as the blade gets older the number with positive properties plummets dramatically as you add it up.

For instance the guy who neglects to buy a mumei Mitsutada because he wants a signed one, well he is going from something that is really rare (Mitsutada) to something that is almost impossible to buy (signed one, there are about 8 that may be legal to export). Now if he says too he really wants an ubu one so turns his nose up at the signed shortened ones, he's into just one blade.

That blade may never be for sale during his lifetime.

What is its value? If it does hit the market, he's going to go oh no that one is wayyyy too expensive (implying it is overvalued by the owner). Well... it's unique. Where is the fencepost north of that blade that allows you to make the determination that this one, the only ubu one that you may buy that exists, is overpriced?

It's just your gut at that point, or maybe it's just because it can't be afforded. But there is no relative means to compare that.

If you have the opportunity to buy the only signed Hiromitsu tachi then you are in the same boat. Ask me how much this sword is worth, ask Benson, ask other people, nobody is going to bet their life on the number that they give you. There is no fence post north of that sword. That one, is the end.

It is THE HIROMITSU.

Not only is it the only signed Hiromitsu tachi it is the only Hiromitsu daito that is universally accepted as his work.

That's it.

Done.

Game over.

Now... is that hype or fact? If someone is going to sell you a mumei Kozori tanto and tell you that this represents the finest of Nanbokucho workmanship and is a treasure that your family will cherish for generations, that is hype.

If you are going to be the owner and custodian of the last Hiromitsu tachi known to man, that you are a lover of swords, and Japanese culture, and of samurai and of steel, and you will be the one human being out of the 8 or 9 billion of us that is going to be entrusted with this... well... that is at an emotional level but it's also the truth.

What is it worth?

It can't be answered. It's priceless. Today is going to be different from yesterday and depending on which two people are going to try to do a deal it's going to be a different number.

So everything is on this spectrum that has a few dimensions: From high quality and high supply Omi Daijo to commodity blades that were just self defense tools for merchants (chu-saku waks from the Edo period) to high quality low supply good old koto blades like the Yamato Juyo types of things to stuff that is a historical artifact that could be on display in any museum in the world including any in Tokyo.

Where something falls into there is what Dr. Tokuno is kind of getting at when he's laying out guidelines and then warning that they don't always apply literally. You can't value an ubu zaimei Shintogo Kunimitsu in never-used condition. I can't even guess. My guess will be different from someone else's.

I can though tell you that you an get a nice quality Omi Daijo katana around 69cm with passable mounts for around $20k plus or minus a bit without even knowing anything more about it.

Where something falls is going to determine its value, the more rare it is, the harder it is to peg because we just don't have thousands around to make a fluid marketplace and make comparison judging. The supply and demand are not balanced with a high number of transactions giving us a de-facto situation we can point at and say this is it or it's wrong.

So these Shikkake blades, I don't see anything about them that says they are out of whack. I can't say one is cheap or one is expensive they are what they are. Though the papers are the same and the school attribution is the same, they are almost certainly made by three different guys at three different times with three different skill levels and they are in three different types of condition. What is more appealing to one may be less appealing to another and as such they're just in a range that seems appropriate and any individual has an opportunity then to pick the one that presents the best value to them personally.

There have been better ones in a lot of ways and there have been worse ones. More expensive ones and cheaper ones. It's all a reason why everyone should study and learn and handle as many good swords as possible and then buy based on both objective and subjective criteria. You need absolutely to buy one that makes you happy to have and there is no price that you can put on that. It's better to pay a little more than you might like to have the one that makes you thrilled every day then to save 10% and have one that you hate and regret. Pay a little more and have one that has a shot at papering higher than one that probably doesn't deserve the papers it has and wouldn't get them today... because then that is a simple valuation proposition that anyone can understand. If all things are equal, get the longer one. If length is equal get the one with better jigane. If jigane is equal get the one with better hamon. If you like them both and everything is identical then get the cheaper one or pay a bit more and get the one with koshirae.

Dr. Tokuno's work is really good and is something that people should try to internalize. Similar statements have been said to me, "Katana, samurai. Tanto, samurai. Wakizashi, businessman." That helps sort out why things are how they are. Past that the subjective stuff will guide how much it's worth to *you* as well as objective stuff like history and koshirae and provenance and reputation of the smith being a bit different in practice from how it's in the books, but even so everyone needs to value how much that means to them. A lot don't give a damn about the history they want the best blade. Some do not care if it's a fake signature and will never paper because the sword came with some story. Who is right and who is wrong? There is no absolute answer to that, there is just the side that you tend to agree with. And those differences of opinion are what sets the demand side of the supply and demand and ultimately affects the market price.

But because one guy doesn't care about something doesn't mean that the next won't: so what appears over valued or under valued is often a matter of perspective and perception.

Some of that we see working out on a daily basis as dealers in Japan actively destroy koshirae to remove the kodogu and put them in boxes. It's because fittings collectors and sword collectors come at this with different perspectives. The fittings collector devalues the sword and the sword collector devalues the fittings. Both groups view it to some degree as a "nice to have" to have the complimentary part there.

The result?

High end koshirae is often empty and high end swords have no koshirae or poor koshirae.

I just saw some fittings that were taken off of a koshirae for a Juyo blade, they were very high end old work. The dealer said, "too good for the sword." A Juyo sword! What he was saying really is if he leave it together a fittings collector won't buy it at all, and a sword collector will pay for the sword then mentally add about $5k in his head as a buffer in which he will accept the fittings.

The solution is to shred the koshirae, put the fittings in a box, sell them for top dollar to a fittings collector who wants his stuff in boxes, take some other low class fittings that the fittings guy won't buy, put them onto the koshirae to drop its value, return the koshirae to the sword now with low end stuff on it. As a result you max the value of all the items and take advantage of the different perspectives of these two groups. Now you have a 60% return vs. where you were starting out with them together, plus you got ride of some unsaleable junk.

It is... heartbreaking.

And every day it makes any sword that is both a high end sword and has high end koshirae that much more rare. And so more valuable. But it requires a bit of education so that people understand the situation. Not hype.

I have examples now where I can look back and see what has been done to some blades. I see a solid gold two piece high quality Aoi mon habaki ... and then it has a zoo of mismatched low quality fittings. On a black lacquer saya. Well... this probably had something like Yoshioka school menuki, kogai and kozuka that matched the habaki in quality and style... they got ripped off and put in a box, and then all this other stuff mounted up in its place.

All of that because if one guy paid the value that the fittings guy saw in the fittings, plus paid what the sword guy sees in the sword, and bought it as a set for the value of the parts BOTH GROUPS would tell him he overpaid. For different reasons. But he would be using the fittings guy's knowledge and experience to judge the fittings and the sword guy's knowledge and experience to judge the sword.

So really... it is not a very straight forward thing when it comes to that really simple question of, "What is it worth?"

My own opinion is always that people should try to consolidate, to have fewer and better things, go vertical instead of horizontal and that every bonus to the item you are buying makes it more desirable. The more desirable, the more value, but the more value harms the liquidity (how fast you can sell it). So each person needs to make a decision about what their time horizon is (forever? one year?) and how much liquidity matters, how much owning something matters (does it bring you joy or regret) vs. having the money. Everyone will answer it differently. Ultimately though it's just better to buy the one that you really want and will STILL want after you buy it, even if it costs you a little more, though it's nicer to get it for a little less if you're lucky.

So these Shikkake in conclusion (this got long and I rewrote it once!), I think are just what they are. Three different Shikake, three different prices, nice for Yamato buyers because it gives them some choice and also potentially negotiating leverage if the one they want is the most expensive of the three! Bonus.


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