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.

About those Tensho dated tsuba

I recently came across an iron sukashi tsuba dated Tensho 3 that got me thinking again about the question of whether these early dated guards are legitimate or some sort of tribute (at best). The first of these I saw 20 plus years ago was one Robert Haynes had turned up that appeared in the famous Red Cross catalog. It’s illustrated in his book Study Collection of Japanese Sword Fittings – Gai So Shi.

Bob writes “Since it is the only known example of this signature I entered it in my book as H 03296.0. In Japan such dates are dismissed, but they are wrong. There are a large number of dated tsuba before and just after this one, such as 1532, 1543, 1573, 1582, 1587 and another dated the same year as this one.” Closer views of the signature are here:

February 1573

The light is hitting the strokes a bit differently on the two sides, but the style of the characters look consistent. If adding a spurious early date, why do so with an otherwise unknown name? The workmanship of the rest of the guard is consistent with the period. I’m inclined to agree that it’s more likely genuine than not.

I undertook a search of Haynes’ opus mentioned in his quote above, The Index of Japanese Sword Fittings and Associated Artists for these other dates. I wound up expanding the search through all dates from the 16th century and came up with the following list.

1502 Ranko (Owari) H 07516

1504 Myochin Nobutada H 07188

1523 Miko (Hizen) H 05085

1532 Myochin Yoshifusa H 11476

1532 Muneoku H 06209

1533 Tadamasa (Hizen) H 09102

1533 Terutoshi (Mutsu) H 09651

1538 Myochin Munenori H 06194

1558 Myochin Unkai H 11064

1563 Munenaga H 06172

1570 Shoami Iranken H 01899

1573 Kiyonami H 03296

1573 Masahige (Heianjo) H 04472

1575, 77 Koike Masaie (Echizen) H 04047

1577, 78 Suzuki Shigemitsu (Heianjo) H 08352

1577 Suzuki Shigeyuki (Heianjo) H 08609

1577 Kishiwada Zaisai (Izumi) H 12517

1582 Tojo (Kyoto) H 09720

1587 Mori Soemon H 08877

1591 Mitsumoto H 05282

1599 Shoami Tsuneyoshi (Yamashiro) H 10942

Given that the Myochin appear to have extensively embellished their early genealogy I tend to discount the value of those dates listed above. Some may be valid, but setting them aside still leaves us with 19 tsuba with dates from the 1500’s.

Another Tensho dated example I’ve seen in person was from Alan Harvie’s collection, the illustration here from the 2005 London sale catalog.

Tensho 3 – 1575 8.2 cm H

Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of the other side. This would be the Shigemitsu listed as H 08352 with recorded dates of 1577 and 1578. Since Bob was certainly familiar with this tsuba, there appears to be a slight discrepancy in the record. This is a very finely made and unusual tsuba with the dragon’s eye done in glass. I wish I could get another look at it now. Is it a later worker enhancing his pedigree or an exceptional work? According to the listing there is at least one other dated example by him out there.

Below is the guard I just found.

7.76 cm H x 0.48 cm T
Nobumasa kore o tsukuru / Tensho san nen

So another date of 1575. Checking Haynes, there is a Myochin Nobumasa with a different masa working ca. 1550-1600, H 07118 but no other information. H 07112 with the same characters and also working 1550 -1600 seemed promising, however the example referenced from the Oeder catalog, p. 20 #153 looks quite different. The signature is not easy to see, but certainly not related.

Oeder collection Nobumasa

If my tsuba was signed with the Myochin family name, I’d expect it to likely be spurious. But this is another case of an otherwise unrecorded artist and a date that appears to be in the same hand as the name. I don’t think of mokume tsuba at this early date, but the rest of the workmanship and condition is not out of line with the period.

It still doesn’t quite ring true to me, but what was the goal if it isn’t? Maybe in the shinshinto revival period there was a market for fake early dates as there was for copies of Nobuie, Hoan, Yamakichi, etc. Of course those are all famous names and unmistakable styles. Why bother with a guard like this one.

Well outside the date range I covered above is a never the less interesting ko-kinko guard published in one of the great catalogs from the fittings museum in Sugamo back in 1994: (note that in my research files I routinely add random text notes that do not appear in the original photos)

This is dated much earlier, 1394, and enigmatically signed Botanka rojin. Haynes lists this guard at H 00202 and interprets the signature as perhaps “old Mr. Peony Flower” (botan being peony). The guard certainly looks like it could be from the period and it’s published in that issue of Tosogu Meihin Ten along with other famous ko-kinko and ko-mino works.

In this case the date looks to me to be cut with a thicker chisel. Is it a different hand? There appear to be a couple of uncertain strokes there. Is it all a tribute of some sort? The ring-type nanako punches on the seppa dai are interesting. They aren’t quite the same as what’s on the web of the guard. Was it added as “proof” that the date couldn’t have been added after the name?

I’m afraid I’ve added confusion on top of uncertainty in this post. If anyone has any other examples or clarifying ideas I’d love to hear your comments.