Japanese Sword Guards, decoration and ornament in the collection of Georg Oeder of Dusseldorf 1916

This is a quick review of the 2017 partial reprint and translation of the famous Oeder collection catalog.

There are a number of print on demand versions of early fittings books available these days including this one from Blurb. Oeder put together one of the better early European collections and his original catalog is one of the hardest to find.

The cover of my original, tape repairs by a previous owner. A user rather than book collector copy.

I haven’t seen an original catalog come up for sale recently, but the last I heard they were into four figures. There is a 2011 facsimile edition that I also haven’t seen recently, but they used to sell for around $200. That version reproduces the entire original book with text in German.

This 2017 book is not a facsimile. It leaves out the kodogu and focuses only on the illustrated tsuba. The original catalog has descriptions of many tsuba that are not illustrated. This one is a bit of a trade off, but it would have been more work to translate those entries and more paper to print them. Most collectors will probably not miss reading about the unseen guards.

A portrait from the 2017 book.

The collection was auctioned after Oeder’s death. I’m not clear about the details, but it was then known to be in Berlin until it disappeared at the end of the second world war. A mystery.

From the 2017 book

There are 214 tsuba illustrated and the images are about 2.5 inches wide on the page. The paper quality is typical of POD and there is some show through of the images on the opposite side of the page, although it is not as noticeable in use as it is under the lights here. The bent text is because I did not squash the binding for the photo. The quality of the images is quite good and the translations read well.

Here are a couple of the same illustrations from the original edition:

The 1916 source page

The page layouts don’t match exactly because the content is different, and this is not a problem. The original illustrations are a bit sharper as expected. The original text is not hard to navigate, but the translation is certainly nice if English is your language. The binding of my original is quite fragile and it sheds particles and threatens to fall apart whenever I use it, so I find myself using the new version for casual browsing instead. I’m glad to have access to the original when I want it for the missing material or more detailed images, but I’d be hard pressed to argue for why it’s a must-have now that this reprint is easily available.

In addition to the catalog images there is an introductory essay that is a good read, but pretty typical of western material of that time. There is also a second mini-catalog at the end:

Speaks for itself, I think

If I heard of this sale catalog before, I forgot about it, but the provenance is beyond impressive. The pieces aren’t at the same level as the Oeder collection and the photos are apparently upscaled from small originals, so the image quality isn’t great:

Page from the second catalog

Annotations by the editor help to make the descriptions more informative. It’s an interesting piece of history and maybe someone will find out that he has a piece once owned by Archduke Ferdinand. Hope you have better luck.

So, bottom line for the student of tsuba – an absolute no brainer purchase at the $30-40 prices found on eBay. Even better, right now there’s one new copy for sale on Amazon for $4.09 and a few others at around $15. I don’t know about the internals of this business and don’t have a stake in it, but seems like a good opportunity to add much to the library for very little.

So who was Robert H. Rucker?

The Met’s Mito Tokugawa Goto collection mentioned in the earlier unboxing post lists its provenance as “Ex. coll.: Robert H. Rucker, New York.”  So who was he?  A quick check of my library and online searches turned up the following. 

George Cameron Stone mentions him in his acknowledgements in A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: in All Countries and in All Times saying  “Mr. Robert H. Rucker who has placed his unequaled knowledge of things Japanese at my disposal and who has given me valuable suggestions and most helpful criticism.” 

In his introduction to the 1999 Dover edition of Stone, the Met’s Donald LaRocca mentions “Robert H. Rucker (d. 1944), a noted collector of Japanese arms.”

While not mentioned often today, Rucker’s 1924 catalog of the Goda Collection shown above takes a deep dive for the time into terminology, materials, methods and a survey of schools. In his introduction to that book Bashford Dean calls Rucker “a learned and judicious amateur in this field.”

The Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum says  “There is now in press a catalogue of our Japanese sword furniture (Goda Collection, 1917), the manuscript of which was prepared by Robert Hamilton Rucker and embodies his researches of the past decade.”

An even less well known book with contributions by Rucker is the exhibition catalog shown above. Each guard is illustrated and described, and while the paper has not held up well, the images are actual photographic prints that are tipped in and are in perfect condition with excellent resolution. I will probably post some later (update – one added below).

According to Financier, New York, Vol 108 , (Sept 9, 1916) and The Commercial and Financial Chronicle, vol 103 “Mr. Rucker is a certified public accountant at 27 Pine Street, New York City.”

Club Women of New York, Vol 6, Parts 1910 – 1911 Lists Robert Hamilton Rucker, 119 East 19th St. as treasurer of the National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, Manhattan.

Asia and the Americans, Volume 21, part 1 reports that “Robert Hamilton Rucker has traveled extensively in the Orient for the purpose of studying eastern art and religions.”

Dean’s “learned and judicious amateur” assessment seems spot on and intended in the most positive sense of the term.

What I have not found yet is anything that suggests when and where Rucker might have acquired his collection of Goto fittings. The accession date to the museum is 1945, and LaRocca records his date of death as 1944. Given the published dates of his professional activities early in the century he would presumably not have been a young man during the second world war. Daimyo families were sometimes inclined by necessity to part with family treasures in the early decades of the last century and that may be the case here. I will update as any additional information comes to light.

Update – a request for the closeup view of the giant Shingen tsuba toward the middle of the display board:

Half of a page from the NY Armor and Arms club exhibition catalog

Update – Thanks to Pete K. for mentioning that Rucker worked with Alexander Mosle on his collection catalogs. Pete once had a copy of the 1909 Berlin catalog with extensive handwritten annotations by Rucker.