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.

Onin suemon zogan

Here’s another Onin tsuba for comparison to the one in the previous post.

9.91 cm H x 0.42 cm T mimi, 0.18 cm T seppa dai

Large, thin and unusually intact, it’s one of the nicer ones to have survived. Clearly the hitsuana are original. Without inlay, it would be a good ko-katchushi guard with ume, hanabishi and inome sukashi.

Occasionally some styles of early iron tsuba are found in versions with no inlay, with hira zogan or with nunome zogan that would be attributed to Tosho/Katchushi, Heianjo and Ko-Shoami respectively. It seems unlikely that these were actually the work of different “schools” but were various options available on the base model. I’ve wondered if all of the work was done “in house” on these, or if the inlay work was subcontracted out to an specialist.

In any event, the customer opted for maximum opulence in this case.

The plate surrounding the kiri mon and kiku shows the clearest signs of having been worked to hold the shinchu suemon inlay in place.

The kiku here, particularly on the lower left show some brass exposed outside of the design that wasn’t buried under the iron. It’s not as pronounced as in the previous example with the botan inlay. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing. Also interesting is how the brass tendrils are fitted together – definitely not obvious without magnification.

The kiri mon on the back side shows a little more “flange” to it. Perhaps not quite as carefully done as the front.

Given how often brass inlay tsuba from the Edo period are missing pieces it’s remarkable that one this old was worked carefully enough to hold on to even the thinnest elements. In guards with some losses it’s usually possible to see the undercutting of the iron plate done around the edge of the missing inlay to hold it in place. I’ll keep an eye out for one to photograph.

Dated, not signed

I came across an interesting tsuba at the Chicago show last weekend. It’s nicely made and has an unusual texture to the iron. Design-wise it’s hard to say to who and where it might belong. It would very likely draw a Shoami attribution at shinsa if uninscribed, and I can’t see how this inscription would change that.

8.38 cm H x 0.49 cm T, suhama mon on left and matsukawabishi mon on right with ken, possibly enclosed within sacred jewels

The rim has a bit of activity to it, although it’s not quite tekkotsu. There is some texture and reflective patches. The guard has a pretty high pitched ring to it for its size.

We have few dated iron ji sukashi guards, so that is the first thing that makes this one interesting: Genroku junen ushi hachigatsu hi. 8th month of 1697.

Date left, non-signature right

So, the other side “should” be signed, but it isn’t. It seems to say “ha tetsu o mote kore o tsukuru.” The middle kanji on the right is the tough one. The rest is pretty standard, but it’s hard to say if that is “ha,” and if it isn’t then what is it? Any ideas?

If that is what it says, it’d be “made of cutting edge iron.” Notations about the type of steel are seen in sword signatures occasionally, but this one would be redundant on a blade. On a tsuba it makes me wonder if this was the work of a swordsmith or a tsubako. Edo tosho tsuba are well known, but they’re usually relatively simple.

If this was the work of a professional tsuba maker then why isn’t it signed? There’s room for it. Is it possible that this guard was delivered with a newly made sword, so date and material were worth noting, but signing the tsuba would be repetitious or unimportant? If the former, it was especially meticulously made by the swordsmith, if the latter it was subcontracted out to a tsubako who didn’t get to put his name on his work. In either case I’m guessing it was made from metal reserved from forging the blade.

The tsuba doesn’t appear to ever have had sekigane and the only signs of adjustment are two tiny strikes at the top front side of the nakago ana. So probably fitted to a sword, but only once. Maybe made for a sword. One with a fairly large nakago. It’s not exactly in the height of Genroku period fashion, so who knows if it was used at all.

As usual, more questions than answers. Thanks to G&N R for helpful consultation.