"A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Art has no true value, only that which we assign to it. It is the ability to appreciate art that makes us human. Art is pure; it does something to our insides that is totally inexplicable in terms of this cold, mechanical world. We call it perfection.

What can or should be the ultimate expression of tsuba art, if not perfection? And, yes, it is totally subjective. It's not portrayed with false scholarly criteria designed to salve the conscience about paying high prices for a piece. This analysis is about what we do to twist and subvert that purity and the reliance we place upon misdirected efforts at objectivity and upon the opinions of the experts - opinions that often masquerade as fact.

True scholarship - not derivative, but primary - is very hard to come by in the field of tsuba. Tsuba scholarship, in the absence of primary sources, relies derivatively upon anecdote, memory, inference, and conjecture. There has been precious little successful research into primary sources by Westerners or by the Japanese. Despite a few valiant and persistent efforts, there seems to be a scarcity of documentary evidence uncovered. This is by no means a criticism; it is a challenge to find something that may not exist.

To aver confidence without unassailable written evidence violates scientific method and invites an investigation and discussion about knowledge for which virtually none of us are equipped. Human memories are notoriously unreliable. That's why, although some expert opinions may be more studied and some more intuitive, each is ultimately an opinion. The quest for knowledge demands of us that we employ scientific method to look for incidental proof. With that in mind, although the expert might say "I think" or "I believe" or (rarely) "I dont know," how reliable is the expert's "I know"? If definitive data is unavailable, then, evaluating the continuum of bad, good, better, best becomes even more disconcertingly tricky.

As long as art must be purchased, the issue of cost is inextricably intertwined with relative assessments of excellence. Tsuba have now reached value levels at which it's irresponsible to let artful questions or outright fakes just go by. These errors and rip-offs cost someone, somewhere, much too much down the line, and damage collector's belief and enthusiasm in their subject. It's wearisome to watch our beloved specialisation and lifetime study proceed down a dead-end road of misplaced hyperbole to the accompaniment of ceremony and self-congratulation which we know to be nonsense. But the more expensive tsuba get, the better reasons, rather than arbitrary misconceptions, there had better be for it. Where not very good, derivative, and outright bad tsuba attract values comparable to those of masterpieces, then issues of discrimination and judgment need to be addressed. There is too much blindly optimistic, ill-grounded assumption in what currently passes for the study of tsuba.

Beware of forgeries! The work of all the old masters have been freely copied, and their signatures imitated for the benefit of unwary customers. This should always be remembered in regard to the products of a country where forgery has long been raised to the dignity of a fine art, and whose dealers are no more scrupulous than their predecessors. The modest collector selects his treasures one by one for the genuine pleasure their artistic merit yields him. There is no short cut to tsuba collecting; it takes time, study, and patience. There is comfort in the reflection that masterpieces are still to be found - unsigned, perhaps, or signed by some name unknown to fame - which, for perfection of design and fidelity of execution, bear comparison with the most valued works in any connoisseur's collection.

Is the signature in any way part of the "perfection of design and fidelity of execution"? Does it add anything to the perfection of the piece? These are rhetorical questions intended to be answered in the negative. Then why do we care? And, if not, upon what would the expert then opine? These last two questions are not at all rhetorical. We prefer to rely upon experts for the extrinsic factors that validate our artistic choices. We need not preclude scholarship. We need to move to expertise of a different modality. The expert has an important role, albeit without certainty. The answers are in the tsuba. Call it the expertise of essence.

Tsuba is an art form that is peculiarly tactile; there is something inexplicable about holding a piece that is truly over three or four hundred years old - whether or not it is exactly what it purports to be - being open to imagining the tsubashi and the tools, feeling the residue of the number of people who have lovingly handled and cared for it over the years, and recognizing how amazing it is that it should have survived. Whether or not any of us is able to connect to it, tsuba can speak to us; there is an essence, an energy that emanates from the original that is absent from the fake.

Elliott D. Long
Shibui Swords and Tsuba

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