The Russians Are Coming...The Russians Are Coming
   by Robert E. Haynes

This time the invasion is not to be in cold steel, but in cold cash. I do not know how many of you follow the international auction sales, but if you do, you have seen a new force buying, like drunken Volga boatmen, at sales in New York, London, Paris, Köln, Stuttgart, and anywhere else that Japanese art auctions are held. This has been going on now for at least three years, and seems to be growing in force. At first it was only two buyers, now others seem to have joined them, and no doubt more will be seen at the sales in the future. What are they buying, and why now? We are not sure of the answers to these questions, but it shows that, though the economy may be bad in Japan and most of the West, it seems not to be so in Russia, especially if you have lots of money that has no known place in the Russian economy.

Just what are they buying? They attend the regular Japanese art auctions, and often buy netsuke, and also a large number of Japanese sword fittings, or any other small objects that are very portable and of high value. I have tried to see if there is a pattern to what they buy, and the only consistent model I can see is their penchant for the ivory over wood in netsuke, and kinko over iron in fittings. Are they buying with knowledge, or just money? That is hard to say, for they have bought some important sword fittings at recent sales, but they have paid very high prices for them, almost as much as they would cost in Japan. We do not know a great deal about these buyers, but some in England and Europe have met them and they seem to be rather secretive and do not let anyone know who they might be buying for, other than themselves. It seems very unlikely that there is now a growing interest in collecting, or even dealing, in sword fittings in Russia and, besides, the prices that have been paid for the majority of the pieces, is in excess of the market value, and certainly there would seem to be no buyers at such prices in Russia. A good example of these current prices can be seen in the last auction in London, where ten pieces from the second Walter A. Compton auction, held October 22, 1992, just ten years before this sale, were re-offered in November 2002. The first price is what the piece sold for in the Compton sale, and the second price is what they sold for in this latest London sale. Compton lot 79, a copper kozuka signed: Gyokuunsai (H 05096), sold for $800., and now resold for $1,680. Lot 80, shibuichi kozuka signed: Mitsuyoshi (H 05591), sold for $1,000, and resold for $2,428. Lot 81, a shibuichi kozuka signed: Hokyusai Naohide (H 06620), sold for $1,300, and resold for $1,868. Lot 82, a copper kozuka, signed: Hamano Morihide (not in Haynes), sold for $2,200, was not resold. Lot 125, a Mino style tsuba signed: Mino ju Nakanaga (H 06575), sold for $2,500, and resold for $2,989. Lot 152, pair of shakudo and gold menuki, not signed, sold for $700, and resold for $747. Lot 154, shakudo kozuka inscribed: Omori Teruhide (forgery), sold for $800, and resold for $2,428, at this price the new buyer will probably never be able to offer this piece for sale again. Lot 162, shakudo tsuba signed: Koenshi Joei (H 02110), sold for $5,500, and resold for $2,242, more like the true value, but still overpriced. Lot 172, brass tsuba signed: Masayoshi (H 04903), sold for $1,400, resold for $1,531. Lot 188, solid gold fuchi signed: Ishiguro Koreyoshi (H 03489), sold for $2,200, and resold for $2,242. Lot 205, unsigned brass tsuba, sold for $1,900, and resold for $2,334, which is at least three times its true value. Well this certainly makes for a VERY strong market! Why should this be so?

I think you have to go back a hundred years to help find the answer. There is an old rumor that there were (are?) barrels of tsuba in the basement of various museums in Russia. No one to my knowledge has ever seen even one of these tsuba. To add to the mystery, many of these tsuba were said to be from various Satsuma school artists, which is supposedly why there are so few Satsuma tsuba in the West. A lovely old story, but I do not think it has any truth in fact. What we do know is that at the end of World War II, the Russian army took a good many art objects from various German museums to Russia. Frau Doctor Rose Hemple was a young curator at the Berlin Museum at the end of the war, and she reported to me, about 1962, that she was on the steps of the museum as the Russians were hauling as many pieces from the museum as they could carry, and then dumping their treasures into ox carts which were headed for Russia. This loot included the famous G. Oeder collection of sword fittings. That collection is now in the Hermitage Museum, and has been seen in the last few years by oriental art experts, who report it is still in the boxes taken from the ox carts, but that the pieces seem to be in good condition, despite their travail. There is little hope that it will be returned to Berlin in my life time. Perhaps with these new Russian buyers I might at least have a chance to see it someday. I will not hold my breath, however. There is one book written in Russian and English that does illustrate a few tsuba from old collections, but it was printed many years ago and seems to be the only work printed in Russia that has tsuba illustrations.

Unfortunately these new buyers have done serious damage to the estimations, and final prices, of the sword fittings that have come onto the market in the last few years. Because they have paid high prices for both good and bad fittings they have blurred the true value of many pieces that have been sold in recent auctions. Those who know the true value of these pieces can weed out the inflated prices, but the beginning student may not be sure what the correct value of a given fitting should be if he uses these very high prices to judge the value of other fittings he may wish to buy. So it is very much, buyer beware, caveat emptor.

It would be very interesting to hear from other collectors who may have additional information about these new Russian buyers, so if any of you can add to this report, please let us know.


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