Sasano-sensei’s grades

In the April 10, 1997 Sotheby’s catalog the comments preceding the Phyllis Sharpe Memorial collection of early tsuba include the following:

“N.B. Masayuki Sasano always insisted that the ‘grading’ he gave in his hakogaki reflected his personal reaction to the tsuba, and was not an attempt to provide a universal quality rating system. His grades, as mentioned in the text which follows, are: Ka: Beautiful; Shu: Superb; Kei: Masterpiece.

These grades appear toward the bottom of his hakogaki to the right of his two seals.

His highest ranking, masterpiece looks like this:

Kessaku – masterpiece

I don’t know where the reading “kei” in the catalog comes from, the first character is normally read ketsu, or when combined with saku as above kessaku. It can also be translated as greatness or excellence (and can be used sarcastically to refer to “an amusing blunder”).

His middle ranking, superb:

Shusaku – superb

And the “bottom” grade ka:

Kasaku – Beautiful

Although the dictionary definitions of kasaku include “good work” and “honorable mention” which sound somewhat less enthusiastic. I’ve never seen a poor or uninteresting tsuba with a Sasano hakogaki, so I think beautiful is fair enough.

I agree with the catalog notes that this is a personal and subjective system. From what I’ve seen I’d guess that Sasano-sensei was thinking about the tsuba in comparison to others of their type or at least definitely not imposing a hierarchical view where some groups “outrank” others. The kessaku example at top is for a small nidai Akasaka guard, the shusaku is for a very small and simple yamagane ko-kinko tsuba with kiku and other stamps and the kasaku is from the Yagyu tsuba in the previous post.

Yagyu

During a discussion with a reader about the appearance of Yagyu iron compared to other groups I started putting together this post.

6.95 cm H x 0.58 cm T

The motif is yomogi ni shobu – a mugwort leaf flanked by iris leaves. In an a article accompanying the NBTHK American Branch exhibition of Yagyu tsuba at the 2005 San Francisco token kai I wrote the following about a similar guard (illustrated later):

“I don’t know the specific meaning within the Yagyu ryu, but the combination of these two plants figures in the Japanese tradition as offering protection from evil and bringing good health. The yomogi is also an herbal treatment to staunch bleeding and the leaves of the shobu rather resemble sword blades.”

References to these two plants together goes back to the 7th century as both medicine and talisman. In Merrily Baird’s Symbols of Japan:

“Heian aristocrats also viewed the fifth lunar month as particularly dangerous, and at that time they both wove mugwort and sweet flag into the thatch of their roofs and produced medicine balls (kusu-dama) of mugwort and sweet flag, which were then hung outside their homes.”

and “…traditional Japanese belief that mugwort and sweet flag are toxic to oni, the demons held responsible for spreading disease and maliciously attacking people.”

This motif appears twice in the Yagyu design books:

Hand copied by Robert Haynes during his studies in Japan in the 1960’s

A closer look at the iron and finishing:

On earlier examples the ground typically has a slightly sandy texture, sometimes described as cloudy. There generally are not sharp edges – while the designs are not blurred, they tend to be smoothed over. Most will show some linear grain in the rim, but it’s usually fairly subtle:

This gets lost in later examples, often certified as kodai (later generation) Yagyu, but then comes back in force in the late Edo period where the copies made by the two Norisuke and their followers have prominent masame in the rim and even on the faces that look like a fine pastry dough. While the designs are faithfully followed, the overall appearance is quite different.

This guard is published in Eckhard Kremers’ Sukashi Tsuba in eurpaischen Sammlungen and has a hakogaki written by Sasano Masayuki.

composite view of the inside and top of the box lid. Edo zenki.

This is the guard mentioned above that was part of the 2005 international exhibition:

According to my notes this one had similar linear forging visible in the rim.

And another published in Owari to Mikawa no tanko:

“no later than the second period”

At the bottom edge of the first guard in this post:

Not done recently…

Two Kamakurabori Tsuba

This is a long one, and the study opportunity comes at the end.

I’d seen this tsuba on eBay before, listed by a Japanese seller, but didn’t pay much attention. When it came up again as an auction I noticed something I missed before.

The label on the side of the box looked like the ones Alan Harvie used on his collection. This is the only view of the box in the online listing. So, checking Alan’s sale catalog from Sotheby’s London, July 14, 2005 there it was:

“A KAMAKURA-BORI TSUBA, MUROMACHI PERIOD (C. 1500) of circular form with raised rim, the thin plate carved and pierced with a pagoda, warabi, flowers, hanabishi-mon and Genji chapter headings for Shigamoto and Agemaki, unsigned; with a tomobako, bearing a hakogai by Dr. Kazutaro Torigoe. 8.2 cm,

“Provenance Walter A. Compton Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 22nd October, 1992, lot 19

“LITERATURE Sebastian Izzard, One Hundred Masterpieces from the Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton, New York, 1992 £ 2,500-3,000

Not surprisingly there it is in the second Compton catalog.

“A KAMAKURABORI SUKASHI TSUBA MUROMACHI PERIOD (CIRCA 1500) The circular iron plate is pierced with a design of a stone lantern, a fern frond bud, hanabishi flower and Genji chapter crests (mon) and is carved in relief with a design of chrysanthemums, waves, fern scroll, pagoda, flowers, leaves and small and large dots of dew – height and width 8 cm, thickness 2.5 mm.

“In wood box insrcibed by Torigoye Kazutaro, dated Showa 38 (1963).

LITERATURE For a very similar example , see Joly (1912), no 9, pl. XI, p. 10. For the same design in brass inlay, see Shibata M,. Aigen-meisakushu (1961), no. 1 , p. 1.

Update: illustrations of both tsuba added at the bottom of the post.

One Hundred Masterpieces (1992), no 43.

“The pierced design of the Genji chapter mon at the top of the plate refers to the Agamaki chapter (on the face) and the Wakana no jo chapter (on the reverse) of Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel The Tale of Genji. Both chapters are associated with elements in the design: the block or lantern on the face, and the young herb or bracken shoot on the reverse. $4,000 – 6,000

Slightly different takes, but the same story. The photos from 100 Masterpieces:

The caption is essentially the same as the above. The price realized at the Compton sale in 1992 was $3,080. This was shortly after I started getting interested in Japanese swords. I remember Bob Haynes mentioning the last minute downward adjustments to the estimates in fear that the market was past its peak.

At the time certified top quality swords and fittings were very scarce at US sword shows. “A Juyo” at a show was cause for excitement and inevitably the sword was under a table or up in a room. If there were any Juyo fittings around I didn’t hear about them. Alan Harvie built up a really top class tsuba collection for the time. His sale did very well, but came a few years after the point when the flow of superb fittings out of Japan really started picking up. Prices were very high for these pieces compared to the recent status quo, but the quality was a world above.

Alan had a number of previously “unobtanium” tsuba that would have been grail pieces if his sale had come a little earlier, but by 2005 better examples could be had from Japan. Still, when this Kamakurabori guard sold, it was $4,560 out the door. Obviously 2005 was a long time ago when it comes to prices for fittings and the words “way down” describe the trend since then.

A lot has been written about pieces offered at online auction by sellers in Japan along the lines that if the piece was worth the price it’s listed at (or more) it would already have sold in Japan, and that is good advice. Of course it is also perfectly OK if the item is genuine and the interest level where you are is higher than it is in Japan to pay the online price even if it might not be the lowest possible.

So either at Alan’s sale or sometime later, this tsuba found its way back to Japan. Oddly the seller did not mention or otherwise photograph the hakogaki, the very tail end stroke of which is visible in the first photo from the listing. Many of the seller’s other offerings are pottery and the signed boxes are featured. The starting bid was very reasonable, so why not cross fingers that things are what they seem and see what happens…

8.1 cm H x 0.27 cm T
other side
Dr. T’s box with Alan’s sale stickers
Dr. Torigoye used the round stamp for hakogaki he wrote outside of Japan. And a dis! The two strokes on the kao mean he thought it was a second-rate example.
The sides and bottom. 772 is Alan’s collection number. 43 is the item number from the 100 Masterpieces book. Maybe 17 is a collection number from an interim owner… and what Christie’s sale is that?
Ephemera inside the bottom of the box. I expected to find Compton’s sales tags, but apparently it went back to auction again at some point. I haven’t researched that sale yet. The slips of paper aren’t Alan’s handwriting – I’m guessing Compton’s.

I was the only bidder and luckily all panned out fine. After all of the inside collecting talk above, the reason I wasn’t particularly interested in that tsuba the first couple of times I saw it is this:

8.52 cm H x 0.25 cm T, here with the Wakisaki daimyo mon (Tatsuno) instead of hanabishi
the reverse, many differences in the small carvings on both sids

Very similar, but not the same. Slightly larger and the carving and inlay are a bit more refined. Supposedly ex. Sasano collection, but I’ve never found it published. Side by side comparison of the details of the two guards below.

Front side, Compton/Harvie left, Sasano right
the reverse
Compton left, Sasano right
the reverse

You’re probably tired of reading by now and I know I’m tired of writing, so I hope the photos can speak for themselves. The one on the right seems to have a bit more care taken in each case. Two workers in the same shop? One worker on a good day and then a better day? Or early career/late career work (or the other way around)? Would Dr. T have given the other guard a kao with only one tick mark (first rate example)? As usual, questions remain.

Thanks to RKG’s sharp eye – The first guard does appear to have a notch cut out for a fukurin down around 7:00. There are no other signs of one having been on there and there wouldn’t have been much room for one. In some lighting the notch almost disappears, but it is there.

Update: Additional examples from the literature:

From the Naughton collection catalog, Joly 1912

There are some losses to the sukashi elements.

From Aigan Meihin Shu, Shibata 1961

An Onin style interpretation of the same design. There are a number of apparently closely related Kamakurabori and Onin suemon zogan guards. The iron ground used by the two are very different, so it’s probably more a matter of following fashion trends than a common origin.