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Tsuba, is value historical or taste?


Moley
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The cost of tsuba varies greatly, from a couple of hundreds to thousands. Types vary enormously and everyone has a particular favourite. Sometimes l am amazed that some types that seem very very simple iron works to me command such high prices. Some to my eye even look crudely made and yet are quite expensive. My question is this. Does the price of tsuba today reflect the price that it cost to buy when it was made, or has rarity and collectors tastes dictated that an otherwise cheap tsuba now costs a lot lot more? 

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Gwyn,

interesting questions!

We don't know the prices that were asked by their respective makers, so we have to look at today's market and taste, but we can assume that TSUBA like YAGYU or TENPO were much esteemed in their time although they sometimes do not appear very refined. I don't think that these were cheap TSUBA back then. 

Generally, if you have a look at a TSUBA maker's work, I have a suspicion that many TSUBA nowadays are sold very cheaply. Most of them could not be made today at their actual sales price! 

So to answer your question, today's taste and fashion go their own way and do not necessarily correspond with the ideas of the old TSUBAKO. That is the way I see it, but that may well be wrong.

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Gwyn,

 

Does it really matter?  Here, now, this object has this value to my existence and identity.

To borrow a very ancient quote, "You never step into the same river twice"

 

As Jean says, " I have a suspicion that many TSUBA nowadays are sold very cheaply. Most of them could not be made today at their actual sales price"

The level of craftmanship for the price, somewhat ridiculous.

Then again, it was very different in the 1980s.

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I would tend to go along with Jean & Curran - try getting someone to make a quality tsuba today, the cost of labour would be prohibitive compared to what you would pay for an antique piece. It would seem that the sheer number of tsuba available does factor into it, there are stories that at the turn of the twentieth century tsuba were sold by the barrel load or for pennies apiece. As collections took off and collectors increased in number, demand started to dictate prices a lot more. But I can also see that many pieces particularly in auctions can sell very cheaply one day and almost identical ones can fetch thousands the next. I have yet to see any real consistency with prices or find the rationale of what makes one more expensive than another based on a like for like comparison.

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I agree that they're massively underpriced in general, especially compared to their manufacturing cost.

 

I think it's worth defining what you mean by high prices.

 

I've rarely seen a tsuba below $1k which I would care to own, but the value is undeniable when you consider it to be a centuries old hand made art object.

 

I think pieces at this level of the market see a lot of volatility (proportionally) as the amounts involved are quite small. Someone paying a few hundred dollars above the going rate for a piece they happen to notice and take a liking to can skew things quite significantly.

 

In the $5k-10k range, I've often seen pieces which were technically masterful but in many cases are somewhat of an acquired taste due to subject matter; Dragon turtles, Japanese tigers, etc.

 

When we get up into the range of $20k plus, there are few pieces I've come across that I wouldn't consider a masterpiece. These tend to align well with our sensibilities and I'm sure they would be worth many times more if they were not such an obscure art form.

 

At any level though I think it's best categorised purely in terms of supply and demand. I don't think it's an art market, as I'm doubtful that anyone is seriously investing in tsuba.

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LOVING IT SO FAR Guys.. PLEASE carry on. I want to learn.

Can anyone post example photos side by side so we can compare and contrast?

i.e. an elaborate work that is quite inexpensive with a simple one that is costly.

(Must point out that I am not bitching about prices in this thread,

I realise that they cannot be made today without breaking the bank, and that they are all superb value considering age and craftsmanship

I am just interested in how prices compared way back then for different types and why prices vary so much today even one tsuba is so elaborate and another seems basic.)

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20 minutes ago, Moley said:

I am just interested in how prices compared way back then for different types and why prices vary so much today even one tsuba is so elaborate and another seems basic.

 

That's where taste comes in.  Old iron guards for example can seem basic compared to their kinko counterparts due to a lack of visual flashiness, but this difference in aesthetic is why they were made and it was/is just as valuable to someone who prefers that vibe.

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From a collector's standpoint,

in addition to personal tastes and trends,

historical context, as well as rarity definitely play a part in valuing a tsuba.

For example, a tsuba that is genuinely from the Muromachi period will sell for significantly more than one that was made later in the Edo period "in the style of" the earlier piece.

The fact that there are so many copies makes it hard to tell which ones are genuinely old, which can make the prices of these jump around quite a bit.

image.png.2884edba631552aeea1e794238eb55ce.png

Also, tsuba from particular schools and individual smiths who were "groundbreaking" innovators add to the value

eg.1: Kaneiye was the first to deliberately create carefully hammered, irregular surface textures with irregularly shaped rims, create raised relief patterns to show wildlife and Chinese landscape scenes, as well as to put 3D gold and silver soft metal inlays into his iron plates.

...all pretty mindblowing relative to everything else that was being produced at the time.

image.thumb.png.a8914ceea8d54cc6a4e9d7b5a07f8752.png

eg.2: Second generation Yamakichibei is more highly prized than the 1st gen founder for that entire style. The 2nd gen smith really took the designs and execution to a higher level.

1st gen image.png.985f7713628bebfddee9aa572c04f76d.png 2nd genimage.png.95f96bb9e9dfb1f6a5e75078d1415f9c.png

 

So in that sense, valuing tsuba has some similarity to valuing art paintings.

The "first" to create a particular style are more prized than all the followers who came later.

Although, every smith is going to have a few of their own "masterworks" at various points in their careers, so you still need to weigh the merits of each individual piece you're looking at before deciding what it's worth to YOU... and just hope that someone else with deeper pockets doesn't want it more :( 

 

Many of the branches of the Higo school enter into this category: very simple and elegant designs that were groundbreaking, innovative and distinct.

image.png.feb80449590bdf6040f4a43acbf7a335.pngimage.png.f874fd624a808aed330b87399aac8e68.pngimage.png.fe3879e73219fe768bbb977782bbc5e9.pngimage.png.65d16f7cfbb0ea867ad1867656c12453.png

 

In my experience, there are many more high end iron tsuba available than there are high end kinko tsuba. 

 

And BTW, now that buying direct from Japanese auctions is available, the price to purchase a great iron tsuba is significantly less than ebay or almost any online retailer, but the prices are still very high for a great soft metal Kinko tsuba.

In my experience, there are many more high end iron tsuba available than there are high end kinko tsuba.  

Some really fantastic iron tsuba can be had for $400-$1000 (plus shipping and import fees), that would rival most tsuba in western museums (but that's a whole other topic...), while the truly rare and "most collectable" masterpieces can hit $2000+.

High end Kinko is a completely different level of cost... so I'll stick with iron for now :)  

 

A few people mentioned the works of the Tenpo school. They produced a lot of tsuba over the years so there are a lot of them available, which drives the price down relative to the workmanship. These can be surprisingly inexpensive :thumbsup:

image.png.571b4f12e36f6394d5b4900739dac7fa.pngimage.png.36238ea99f77777e8aecf1ac50f94dc8.pngimage.png.38db631ce29c8e95eb81b3a456a4af15.png

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi Glen,

 

Good thoughts posted here.  I was struck, however, by this statement:

 

"Second generation Yamakichibei is more highly prized than the 1st gen founder for that entire style. The 2nd gen smith really took the designs and execution to a higher level."

 

When you say that second-generation Yamakichibei is more highly prized than the first-generation founder, I'm wondering where this notion comes from.  Do you have a source for this statement?  And as far as the second-generation smith "really [taking] the designs and execution to a higher level," I'd also like to know the source for this sentiment.  In my experience, neither of these is quite correct... 

 

Steve

 

 

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Steve, I looked through my files to see if I could find the info, and it's actually something you wrote:

"The Nidai Yamakichibei worked in Owari during the late-Momoyama Period to the earliest years of the Edo Period, creating powerful tsuba strongly informed by the Tea taste of the Tea Master Furuta Oribe.  His works are esteemed as among the greatest iron sword guards in Japanese history:  within the Yamakichibei group of tsubako, it is the Nidai who has the most Juyo tsuba, with five.  His work is not frequently encountered." - S.Waszack

 

It was the combination of:

"it is the Nidai who has the most Juyo tsuba" and "among the greatest iron sword guards in Japanese history", that lead me to the inference that their work would be "more highly prized".

It seemed like a logical leap to me, but It is an inference, and I could be wrong. 

 

As to the "next level statement", that's just a personal observation, therefore purely a matter of opinion.

To my eye, there appears to be an increased level of complexity in form and texture in the second gen Yamakichibei tsuba.

And I know that increased complexity doesn't automatically mean "better", but in this case, it seemed to qualify as "next level" in terms of the relative complexity in the designs in the 2nd gen tsuba.

 

Steve, you are the expert in the Yamakichibei area, and defer to your knowledge and insights.

If there's some errors in my thinking, I'm all ears :thumbsup:

Thanks!

 

 

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I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it… I feel I barely know anything about blades but I am even more completely mystified by judgment of tsuba. I’ve bought a few that I like based on theme and my personal preference, but I wouldn’t know where to begin to start a ‘proper’ collection. 

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Ah, thanks, Glen, for the explanation. ;)   I appreciate it. 

 

Yes, I can see why you had these statements in your post, then.  I guess I would just say that, while Nidai work can be as good as that of the two Shodai smiths, I wouldn't quite say it is on another (higher) level.  His workmanship can be more complex, it is true (e.g. he will sometimes have, in combination, uchikaeshi mimi, extremely expressive tsuchime, brilliant tekkotsu, and the finest amida-yasuri of any tsubako in history, IMHO), but conversely, it doesn't quite attain the hugely expressive sculptural power of the work of O-Shodai, and it lacks the nuanced finesse often achieved by the Meijin-Shodai.  None of these qualities would make one "better" than the other, objectively speaking, but subjectively, certainly, we might prefer the tsuba of one of these smiths to those of the other.  In my view, all three are absolute masters.  :)  

 

Interesting note:  the Nidai has five Juyo pieces to his name, while the O-Shodai (Yamasaka Kichibei) has "only" four.  However, it must be considered that there are far fewer O-Shodai pieces extant, so a much higher percentage of his known works are Juyo than is the case with the Nidai.  This, incidentally, must be factored in when we are reviewing how many Juyo works exist for a given smith or "school":  how many pieces made by a particular tsubako are there, and of these, what percentage attain Juyo levels?  In some cases, there may be hundreds of pieces extant belonging to a certain maker or school, but "only" perhaps ten are Juyo; on the other hand, there may be only a few dozen works known by another master, but of these, ten are Juyo.  This may suggest a higher "ranking" for the latter... ;) 

 

I'll look forward to reading your further posts in this and other threads, Glen. :thumbsup:

 

Steve

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Mark S.  Who or how can anyone define a 'proper' collection? Two tsuba could be called a collection [albeit a small one].

 

Basing your collection on 

15 minutes ago, Mark S. said:

"a few that I like based on theme and my personal preference"

is probably the most honest and important way to do it. 

Go for it! :thumbsup:

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Thanks for the additional details Steve :)

It certainly adds more depth and nuance to "all things Yamakichi" :thumbsup: 

 

 

Mark S. - like Spartancrest (Dale) said, go with what appeals to you.

 

For a great place to start for information on various tsuba schools and representative examples, I would definitely suggest Ed Long and Robert Haynes' website shibuiswords.com.

Just don't pay too much attention to the prices. Look at it more like a relative ranking of the tsuba that are listed on the site, then go hunting for ones that you admire.

  

Because of the breadth of time and immense quantities of tsuba produced in Japan, a tsuba collection could probably take on a nearly infinite number of goals and themes.

It will ultimately be a very personal endeavor, but hopefully one you can share with all the other crazy people who love tsuba. :crazy:

 

I'm hoping to get to the point where I need to reinforce my floors so the collection doesn't fall through to the basement one day ;) 

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I really would like to buy into this discussion, realizing that I don't have the scholarship, the knowledge that comes from dedicated research and comprehension of the extensive study of tsuba schools and tsuba generally that many here so obviously have achieved. Because there are so many tsuba available and still coming onto the market, people like me can poke and prod around the periphery and from time to time find an example to take pleasure in AND often enough for not a lot of money.

I only ever wanted a few reasonably good examples (or what I thought was reasonably good), particularly from the pre- Edo period (and that wasn't always that easy to define) and without paying very much for any piece (say $1200US maximum). Not that I didn't like outstanding pieces but it was late in my life and money wasn't that available.

Now I didn't collect to try and impress or please anyone else except me and so I am quite OK with what I have, others may smile at them but anyone can enjoy this genre of collecting, more and more so when you see and read articles like the above.

On the other hand, one piece I would really love to have is an example illustrated in the publication "LETHAL ELEGANCE" on page207-no.135  Tsuba with design of "flying goose, reed and stream", can I be greedy and say- plus most of the others as well. My poor computer skills don't let me show you them.

What I have tried to illustrate is that is not too late and not very expensive to build some sort of tsuba collection with examples of your liking.

Roger j

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6 hours ago, Spartancrest said:

Mark S.  Who or how can anyone define a 'proper' collection? Two tsuba could be called a collection [albeit a small one].

 

Basing your collection on 

is probably the most honest and important way to do it. 

Go for it! :thumbsup:

+1

There’s no point in buying what you don’t like for any reason. As Paul Bowman says, buy what you like, then do the study to learn why you like it. 

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Back to Gwyn’s question, I agree with comments above that many tsuba and perhaps sword fittings in general are undervalued today in terms of the effort and artistry put into their creation.
 

At the time of manufacture, I think the cost of the raw materials would have been comparatively little compared to the hours put into forging a steel plate, cutting sukashi or carving nikubori. Lord only knows the skill, time and patience that went into creating a high quality nanako ground. 
 

Steel tsuba, historically I feel would be ascribed an aesthetic value because of demand by warriors who liked the more austere wabi-sabi look. Gradually more complex designs in steel evolved as peace-time created the leisure to make and appreciate them. For me, it is especially these that are undervalued today and I would cite better pieces from Bushu, Echizen, Hizen and Choshu schools as examples of this. 
 

At the other end of the scale, I think there was always a demand for works by the Goto and, later, by the machibori masters that inflated their prices as these were the province of the well heeled. Sorry for the long post. 
 


 

 

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John J., I like your "then do the study to learn why you like it" comment... I like so many that I think I would need some professional help to unpack it all ;-)

And just to add to your comments about "the well heeled", it's always good to remember that beginning sometime in the Edo period, swords were not exclusively worn by the samurai class. The wealthy merchant class were allowed to wear a single sword on their person, while samurai were required to wear two. The wealthy merchants would have definitely driven up the price of the high end tsuba back in the day.  

 

Mark H., I like the "mountain analogy" in the link you posted... it could be applied to the varying levels of skill and abilities for just about any aspect of human activity.  

22 hours ago, mas4t0 said:

Perhaps this article will be helpful:

https://blog.yuhindo.com/fungible/

  

As for Dale's comment about people buying tsuba by the barrel full after the samurai were no longer permitted to wear swords, Louis Comfort Tiffany did exactly that!

One of his his purchases was for a batch of 2500 tsuba!

He had so may, that he nailed them to his smoking-room wall :doh:and had them mounted in his blacksmith-made smoke hood for his fireplace:

image.thumb.png.a1a33b79214c723baf21b7ef6d72e0b3.pngimage.thumb.png.65172f204d1019685ed4773f598d45f5.png

 

 

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I can't find the actual source right now but I am fairly positive Markus Sesko has written a bit about historical prices of some fittings, if my memory is not playing tricks on me (I know Markus has done so on swords). Some fittings such as Gotō school sets etc. were way above your average samurai back in the day. I know some Gotō family origami have valuations that they gave to the pieces.

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This has been a consistently interesting thread. Thank you all!

Having said that, and acknowledging that I am NOT a tsuba collector, (well, I sort of DO have a bunch of Namban guards, but...) I keep coming back to the basic fact that these things are the "tie-tacks and cufflinks" of the Edo period. How can WE understand the quality of these objects without embracing the foibles of their era?

Peter

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This thread is quite old. Please consider starting a new thread rather than reviving this one, unless your post is really relevant and adds to the topic..

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