How to Collect Tsuba Like an Expert -
Building a Collection

In order to collect tsuba intelligently, you have to master two basic skills. The first is being able to effectively research, evaluate and buy any tsuba that attracts you. The second is being able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form a meaningful grouping-- a practice more commonly known as collecting.

If you're like most people, you know how to buy tsuba on a piece-by-piece basis, but may not be all that accomplished at formulating a plan for making multiple acquisitions over the long haul, or in other words, building a collection. You can find tsuba you like just about anywhere you look and in an incredible variety of subject matters, mediums, and price ranges, but that can be confusing as well as intimidating. So how do you wade through it all and decide what direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organize or group your tsuba together? How do you present them? And, most importantly, how do you do all these things well? This is what collecting is all about; it's the ultimate case of controlled, purposeful buying.

Great collectors are often as well known and widely respected as the tsuba they collect. Take the ALLEN HARVIE (True Collector and Scholar) Collection, The FURUKAWA Collection, The MOSLE Collection, just to name three that express the knowledge of their owners. Collectors like these are famous because they demonstrate just as much talent in selecting and grouping their tsuba as the tsuba-ko show in creating them. Likewise, each work of tsuba in a great collection commands premium attention as well as a premium price not only because it's excellent, but also because of the company it keeps.

What makes a great collector great is his or her ability to separate out specific works of tsuba from the hundreds of pieces extant and assemble them in such a way as to increase or advance our understanding of those tsuba in particular or of the evolution of tsuba in general. In any mature collection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, the collector comes to be accepted as a respected authority and in exceptional cases, goes on to set the standards, determine the trends, and influence the future of collecting for everyone.

Regardless of how you view collecting, whether serious or recreational, there are techniques that you can use to maximize not only the quality and value of your tsuba, but also your own personal enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of that tsuba. Step one is being true to your tastes. This means acknowledging that you like certain types of tsuba regardless of what you think you're supposed to like or what seems to be the current rage. All great collectors share this trait-- that's one thing that makes their collections stand out. When personal preference is ignored in favor of the status quo, one collection begins to look just like the next. A few people dictate, the masses follow, everyone walks in lock-step, and the tsuba you see from collection to collection becomes boring and repetitive.

You may or may not be well along in your collecting, but if you have any nagging doubts about what you've been buying, what you've deliberately avoided, whether you're totally satisfied or you just want to take a moment to see what's new, suspend your buying for a bit and take a look around. Don't confine yourself to the same museums or galleries, dealers, or wherever else you've been looking at tsuba. Get out there and see what else is going on. Explore the less conventional if that's what you're curious about. Look at tsuba that you think might attract you, but that you've always steered clear of. Don't be afraid to experiment. You may end up right back where you started, reinforcing your chosen path, but then again, something new and truly unique may thrill you at some point along the way. Periodic reappraisals of your tastes are always a good idea. What excites you today could easily bore you tomorrow. A quality collection is always evolving and never static. The next step is educating yourself. Once again, you probably know a good deal about what you collect already, but the educational process is a continuing one. Be an informed buyer. Learn from the experts. Take every opportunity to discuss the fine points of what you're looking at with as many different experts and collectors as possible. Not only does this improve your abilities to separate out the great from the good from the not so good, but you also learn how to protect yourself against being taken advantage of in the marketplace-- which brings us to this next point.

Hand in hand with knowing the tsuba is knowing the marketplace-- and here's where many collectors fall short. The great collectors know just about everyone who sells what they collect; they're on top of the market and the market knows them. They're tuned in to the late breaking news and when something exciting is about to happen, they're usually among the first to find out about it. The top collectors go to great lengths to scoop the competition when the best tsuba come up for sale-- because it doesn't come up all that often. They also know how to compare and contrast what dealers offer them in order to assure that something is as good as they're led to believe it is. What amazes me about tsuba collecting in general is the lack of comparison shopping and market savvy that collectors often show. Far too many establish relationships with only one or two sellers and rarely if ever stray. The danger in doing this is that your overview of the market suffers. You can inadvertently subjugate yourself to the tastes of one or two sellers and, over time, your collection becomes less of what you originally intended it to be and more of what the sellers tell you it should be. Knowing the marketplace also prevents you from overpaying. Simply put, Seller X may offer you a tsuba for $5,000; Seller Y may have a comparable piece priced at $3,000. If you only shop Seller X and you don't know that Seller Y exists, you waste $2,000. Or Seller X may borrow that $3,000 tsuba from Seller Y and offer it to you for $5,000. Same outcome.

Regarding the tsuba that do make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you that they buy what they like. That's the best way to buy, but as you gain experience, the reasons why you buy what you like should become increasingly more conscious, complex, and purposeful. "Not only do I love this tsuba, but it's also a prime example of the tsuba-ko's best subject matter dating from his most productive time period and it fills a major gap in my collection." Experienced collectors show this sense of sureness and direction in their overall plans. And here's where we get into the essence of collecting, of what distinguishes a superior collection from an inferior one. In a superior collection, every piece belongs; nothing is random or arbitrary. A less experienced collector, on the other hand, may know plenty about each individual tsuba, but lack an overall understanding how they work together or even if they work together. "What are these tsuba doing in my collection at the same time? I really don't know. I'm not quite sure." In a sense, what the experienced collector does is pose a problem and then illustrate the solution to that problem by piecing together a collection. That way, everything fits, it all makes sense according to the master plan. Pose your problem as soon as you can. Take the randomness out of your buying. See what's going on in your collection; find out what all those individual pieces you like so much have in common and proceed from there. Ask questions like:

* Why do I like the kinds of tsuba that I'm buying?

* What about them satisfies me?

* Do I like the subject matters, what they represent, the patinas, the historical aspects, the lives of the tsuba-ko’s?

* Does it take me to a special place?

* Does it make me feel a certain way?

* Do I respect the way it's made?

* Does it make me see life differently?

* Is it that it's old, new, foreign, big, small, round, square, whatever?

Once you identify the common traits, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those traits. It's almost like putting together a mission statement or clearly and specifically defining your goals... and a collector with a specific mission or goals is always more effective at acquiring than one who rarely questions why they buy what they do. By the way, if the answers to your questions sound like these-- "I buy what my friends buy; I buy for investment; I buy only the big names"-- consider returning to square one, determining what kinds of tsuba you really, really like, and starting all over again.

Another aspect of good collecting is documenting and kanteisho (origami – judgement certificates) for your tsuba. You can see best how documentation and kanteisho really pays off in the markets for older tsuba. Suppose, for instance, that two Tembo tsuba appear at the S.F. Token Kai for sale. They're virtually identical in size, quality, condition, date, and other details. The first is presented as having NTHK Kanteisho certificate #5723 dated 2010 - really exciting. The second is described as the first with the only difference being shakudo fill of part of the sukashi. Assuming you find both tsuba’s equally appealing, which would you rather own? Which do you suppose will sell for more money? The first one, of course. It's like choosing between two puppies and one has a pedigree. By the way, when tsuba dealers and auction houses take on tsuba with poor documentation, they at least do their best to come up with adequate descriptions. They know that even when additional information is scant or nonexistent, good descriptions sell tsuba faster than boring ones or no descriptions at all. The point is that good documentation positively impacts not only dollar value, but also the ability to personally appreciate and understand tsuba. If you know nothing about tsuba, for instance, you can only guess why it was created, what it means, where it's been. If you know its entire history, you can relate to it on a multitude of levels in addition to the purely visual. If you think you remember everything significant about your tsuba and don't need to physically sit down and record that information, think again. At some point, your collection will become so large that there's simply too much to remember. Either that or time will take its toll. You certainly won't be able to remember every single detail about tsuba you acquired years or even decades ago. The good news is that you can begin documenting at any time and even from a standing stop. If you own undocumented tsuba, write down everything you can either from memory or by contacting the sellers. Include information like the following:

* Any stories the sellers tell you.

* Any memorable moments about making the purchases.

* What the tsuba means.

* What the subject matters are.

* How long they took to create.

* Who the tsuba-ko is and what they've accomplished.

* Why the tsuba-ko made them.

* When they date from.

* Whether they've ever been exhibited in public.

Don't think you have to hide anything. Far too often, collectors throw away their original sales receipts or refuse to tell where they bought it, or what its previous ownership history was. If you feel protective, don't tell everything to anyone who asks, but at least save and record the information for release at some later date. Don't lose it forever. Your descendents will thank you for it. Not only does good documentation tend to increase the value of tsuba, but the documentation itself often has value and that value can increase. Imagine if you had an original tsuba box with Dr. Torigoye hakogaki of a very rare JOI tsuba that changed hands in the early part of the 20th century. I can tell you that this item would be worth well into the thousands of dollars today. So here's what you do:

* Save all receipts and certificates of authenticity.

* Whenever possible, get descriptive written statements from collectors or dealers or both when you buy tsuba. If they won't write something for you, have them tell you about the tsuba and either write it down yourself or record it.

* Save all books, exhibit catalogues, gallery brochures, reviews, and the like.

This information is easy to get, fun to get, it brings you closer to your tsuba, and it only takes a few moments at the point of purchase. Over time, however, those few moments pay big dividends.

Another distinguishing feature of a superior collection is that it's organized. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This goes back to posing the problem and then using the collection to map out the solution. A collection can be organized in many ways including by period, by town, or by region. Or you can get even more specific. Within a topic as these, there are numerous subtopics:

* Tsuba displaying the same design or theme.

* Tsuba organized by tsuba-ko.

* Tsuba of a specific family or school.

The possibilities for formulating and presenting a collection are limited only by your own imagination. The easiest way to get the hang of organizing is to go to museums. Here you see the work of professional organizers-- also known as curators. Museum shows always have starting points; they always have ending points. What happens in between the two is that viewers learn something about tsuba. Depending on the museum or the show, you have printed, oral, or recorded guided tours that explain the way the show is organized. Now you don't have to go so far as to physically re-arrange your collection and print up a catalogue. Everything can still be displayed right where it looks its best. But organize it in your mind. Be able to walk someone through and tell them the story of how and why you've come to own all these wonderful tsuba and how they work so well together. This increases not only their enjoyment, but it also reinforces your chosen direction and your future buying. Additional benefits to organizing your collection are that you can see where you've been, where you're going, where you have duplication, where you're weak, what you're missing, what no longer makes the grade, and what you have to do to resolve any problems.

The final step in good collecting is not the most delightful to talk about, but it is among the most necessary, and that is to plan for future owners-- whether they be museums, collectors, family members, friends, or complete and total strangers. You'd be surprised how many collectors never say a word and just think that everyone automatically knows everything they've been doing all these years. This is never the case! Think about all the people you've met who own family heirlooms that they know little or nothing about because no one ever told them. The worst possible outcome for a collection occurs when the owner passes away leaving no information about the tsuba, how much they are worth, how to care for them, or how to sell or donate them, if that's what the inheritors want. Countless collections have been resold for pennies on the dollar, given away, or even thrown in the trash because the collectors kept little or no records and left no instructions on what to do with their tsuba. The lesson in all this is that collectors, no matter how large or small their collections, should provide a complete list of options and instructions for those who'll inherit their tsuba. These include names, addresses, phone numbers, procedures, dollar values, and all other particulars for selling or donating as well as for dispersal within the family. By the way, simple appraisals with no further instructions are never enough. In fact, they often create more trouble than good. These appraisals are usually for insurance or replacement purposes which means that they're at or beyond retail. The inheritors get stuck with these values, have no idea what they mean, and often assume that that's what the tsuba should sell for. They spend months or years beating their heads against the wall, getting nowhere, and concluding that all buyers are out to take advantage. Cover all bases by providing insurance or replacement appraisals should your descendants decide to keep or donate the tsuba. Also include realistic wholesale values should they decide to sell it. And don't forget those instructions-- who to call, where to go, what to do. If you expect to have any influence over the long term future of your collection, lay the groundwork beginning right now. Educate your family about what you own. Instill a love and respect for what you've accomplished and accumulated all these years. Make sure that those close to you are aware of your tsuba's value and significance. Make sure that they understand how important it is to you. You can't control the final outcome, but at least you can have your say and know that you've done your best to collect like an expert.

Elliott D. Long
Sept. 27, 2014


Home Page | Library Books | Tsuba Collective | Study Guide | Email Address -