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Ten Basic Rules Every Collector Should Know

  1. NEVER get emotional about any sword at any price. Buying on emotion and rationalizing it with logic can lead to the disappointment and regret also known as "buyer's remorse". Auctions are the number one place for emotion to over-rule common sense by building that competitive spirit between "rivals". Establish your limits and budgets and stick to them.
  2. Buy what you like and what you can afford. Don't strain the budget looking to acquire. The prudent sequence is; fund comfortably, acquire advantageously, enjoy profusely, learn extensively, liquidate equitably, repeat as needed.
  3. Take from the bottom, add to the top. A singular great work carries far more merit in a collection than a room full of low end junk. Great is always great. Junk will always be junk. Always has been, always will be. But starting at the top is not within the capacity of most folks, and starting with lower levels (not junk though) can build experience, knowledge, and savvy. Eventually, as knowledge, experience, and tastes improve, these pieces can be used as markers to augment moving into the next levels, by selling or bartering them into other pieces. Every acquisition should attempt to build equity to a future "better" piece. Take from the bottom, add to the top.
  4. Learn about your acquisitions *before* acquiring them. Your tastes will not only be verified and satisfied this way, but an educated buyer is indeed a force to be reckoned with. The singular most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to continually educate yourself. It never stops. Study is the due diligence you exercise for future acquisitions.
  5. If it was meant to be part of your collection, it will be either now or sometime in the future. Eventually it all comes back around, or perhaps something better.
  6. Buy from someone that you trust and will not only help with rule number four, but also encourage you to upgrade your collection and participate in it by a means of trade-in's and trade backs to help with rule number three also, and not just once or twice, but time after time. Find good mentors and listen to them.
  7. Study everyone else's collections where possible at shows, exhibitions, museums, private individuals, internet, books, clubs, everything, all the time, at every free moment. It's all good food for the brain that builds recognition skills when that out-of-polish masterpiece trots across your path in the most unexpected of places. Without study, it will go unrecognized. Is it easy, convenient, or cheap? NO! But what worthwhile education is? Accept the fact that regardless of where you live, learning about swords will involve expenses such as travel, books, memberships, and of course, the swords, fittings, papers, restoration work, etc, and sacrifices are part of the curriculum.
  8. If you walk away from an item, you don't go away empty handed. You still have your cash, and everyone wants it. Never feel guilty about walking away from the negotiating table. Anyone throwing guilt on the matter is playing their very last card. If you never committed, you have no reason to be guilty. However, if you did commit and then back out, don't expect favors in the future. The integrity you keep in the deals is just as important as the other guy's. Collecting communities are surprisingly small in many genres, and an ill wind travels fast and far. The dealer/client relationship will only prosper if due consideration and respect is maintained by both parties.
  9. Never become complacent about costs. Top grade stuff is serious money. Someone says to you; "This sword is a great deal at $75,000.00", and indeed, it may very well be. However, many collectibles are not as "liquid" as others and the markets fluctuate. How fast can *you* liquidate it, and for how much, if some emergency or duress requires a quick sale? There are actually two lessons here; the perceived or realized "greatness" of any deal, and the true discretionary nature of the money one would use to fund it. Pulling down the retirement account, maxing out credit cards, or drawing out all the rainy day savings would be ill-advised (see also rule number two again).
  10. Anything can happen. Be prepared for that "anything". If one day you buy something on impulse or compulsion, then you are unable to act on a better piece or better deal that may come along right after the money is spent. Be confident and discerning in acquisitions following the other rules and think each decision through clearly. At least then if such a situation arises, you won't hold nearly as much regret because of the satisfaction in the purchase you made already. Patience, knowledge, and logic not only minimize regret, but are the keys to a great collecting experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Care and Maintenance

Basics of sword ownership
Congratulations, so you have just bought your first traditionally-made Japanese sword. Hopefully you had spent a decent amount of time and money buying books, learning about Nihonto, asking for other's advice, and looking at good examples in hand before making your purchase. This is the recommended route, and is far better than the often-followed route of buying a fake on eBay or elsewhere, discovering you wasted your money, and then buying the first cheap, out of polish but real blade that you could find. Perhaps you have been handed down a family sword that was brought back from the war by someone, or stumbled upon a good deal at a garage sale that you couldn't resist. In all of these cases, you will be wondering what to do next. The following advice is critical to prevent any damage to the sword and to inform you of how to begin, so please read carefully.
  • NEVER clean, sand, grind or otherwise work on the patina/rust or shape of the nakago (tang) of a Japanese sword. The patina and rust there is critical to helping determine who made the sword and/or its age, and to the entire value of the blade. Japanese swords are traditionally polished by experts, but the tang is always left to age gracefully. Even if there is a signature that can't be read due to the rust, removing the rust will reduce the value dramatically and likely get you lynched by the first serious collector you come across. If there is red and active rust on the tang, you can carefully wipe it over with a soft cloth and maybe add a tiny amount of oil to your fingertips and wipe softly, but don't use anything abrasive on the tang. The idea is to preserve the old and black stabilized rust, and limit red and recent active rust. However most consider oiling the tang as generally not a good idea and you should seek out your nearest expert or sword appreciation club for further advice. When in doubt, do nothing to the tang at all. An unreadable mei (signature) is far preferable to a cleaned nakago. It goes without saying that you do not grind or alter the shape of the nakago in any way.
  • Rule number 2 is to never use anything abrasive on the blade to clean or polish it. Directions for cleaning the blade can be found below. No matter how much you are tempted, never use any grit of sandpaper or other abrasive compound to remove stains or rust. Oil left to penetrate, followed by regular wiping will stabilize a blade, and prevent further damage. For very out of polish blades, regular uchiko work done lightly over a period of months or years might assist you in identifying the temper line (hamon) but this is also a controversial subject and must be done cautiously. Again, the best advice is when in doubt, do nothing except preserve with a light coating of oil.
  • NEVER use the sword to cut anything at all. There are many modern swords made specifically for use in sports such as iaido and tameshigiri. Unless you are an expert and have a legitimate reason, do not be tempted to see how well your sword will cut. Antique blades are considered art, and any use of them for cutting can be dangerous and/or detrimental to the condition of the blade. Even the lightest of scratches will necessitate a full polish at well over $1000 and significant loss of metal. These swords only have a certain amount of polishes left in them, and after that they are considered fatally flawed and unrestorable. They could also have unseen flaws that could cause the blade to snap, chip or bend, which is hazardous to your health...but more importantly to the sword.
  • Keep your fingers off the blade. Human oils can rust a blade in a very short period of time. See the section below for instructions on handling a sword, and always rest it on a clean and soft cloth. Do NOT check the edge to see "how sharp it is" or put your fingers on the blade. In many cases, people do not even speak while looking at a sword, as tiny drops of saliva will end up on the blade and stain it remarkably quickly. Always properly wipe or clean any sword that has just been handled before storing it.
  • Do NOT try and polish a blade yourself. You cannot possibly do a job even remotely close to someone who has studied polishing for over 10 years, and you will ruin the blade. Leave the polishing to the experts.
  • Do not use any acids, juices or other etchants on the blade to bring out the hamon. These will ruin the blade, and any acids that get into the grain of the steel will continue to eat away at the blade causing harm that cannot be removed or repaired. Acid polishes are immediately identifiable to most serious collectors, and will reduce the value of the blade and cost you more money at the end of the day to re-polish. No matter who tells you that some experts use acids or lemon juice etc to bring out the hamon, resist the urge to try this.
  • We are not the ultimate owners of these swords. Bear this in mind every time you look at a blade. Many have existed for hundreds of years, and we are only the temporary custodians until the next generation. Respect the sword and treat is as though you are only maintaining it for future generations. Every year many antique swords are lost to careless damage, and remember that these cannot be replaced. With knowledge, comes respect for what these swords represent and a desire to preserve them and study them further.
Where do I buy a genuine Japanese sword?
You can buy Japanese swords in many different places and from many different dealers: sword shops in Japan, sword shows in the US or overseas, gun and military shows in the US or elsewhere, eBay and other online auctions, postings on the For Sale forum on this message board, from other collectors, and from online dealers. Check the links at the top of this board 's home page and you 'll find a list of dealers with swords at a variety of price levels.
Finding swords to buy is easy; knowing what to buy takes serious study. Your first ten swords should be books. You should attend sword shows if possible and beg your way into collections to see and learn. Read, ask questions, reread, and ask more questions. Only with knowledge can you make an informed decision, and appreciate and understand what you are buying.
If you are ready to buy a sword but are uncomfortable with you level of expertise, you would be smart to stick with well established dealers and/or swords with authentication papers from one of the important sword societies in Japan. Even then you should be asking lots of questions. If you are still unsure, ask questions: From the seller, and from other collectors. Ask this forum. but ask someone, as once you have bought, it is too late to go back. Usually fellow enthusasts will be glad to assist and guide you through the process. Always run the dealership through an online search and see what other's experience of them was. You will never find total concensus, but most should agree.
It is a fact that you should always buy a sword in-hand and in person, and not from pictures online. This is good advice to follow, and is probably the most important advice you will get. But if you are unable to, then refer to the advice above, or delay the purchase until you can.
How to disassemble and examine a sword.

Without rewriting the excellent guides that are already out there, the following page has an excellent article on this, together with pictures and a section on etiquette:

How to oil and maintain Nihonto
The starting point to preserving a blade is to pick up some light machine oil, the type sold for sewing machines, or some traditional oil for Japanese blades which is called choji oil. This refers to clove oil, but is actually a light machine oil mixed with a tiny bit of clove oil just for the pleasant traditional scent. Do not use pure pharmaceutical clove oil. Many other oils such as gun oils and vegetable oil can gum up, leave stains or have other adverse effects over time.
A few drops on a clean and soft cloth, lightly wiped over the blade when it has been handled should do the trick. In climates that are less humid, cleaning does not have to be done very frequently. Less is more when it comes to Nihonto. Uchiko powder and commercial sword cleaning balls containing powdered abrasive should generally be reserved for blades heavily out of polish, and even then very sparingly. They can be used occasionally on Nihonto to remove old oil, but bear in mind that they are abrasive and will dull a new polish over time. Removal of old oil can easily be done with pure alcohol, otherwise known as dehydrated alcohol or waterless ethanol. This is 99.5% pure alcohol.
Be careful when cleaning the area close to the tang - try to avoid moving the tissue up from the nakago - the tissue might pick up rust particles from the nakago (tang) and scratch the blade. Move the tissue in one direction - from the tang to the tip. Never ever move your hand up and down - you could cut yourself badly some day (and blood will stain a blade.)
Scented or otherwise hampered tissue paper is be avoided. Normal tissue is fine and a lot easier to get a hold of. The best cloth to use is micro fiber cloth, sold for photographic lenses. Microdear is known as the best of these brands and can be found online. These can be washed in water when they get too dirty.
For newly polished blades or newly made blades, the following is the traditional routine:- For the first 3 months, the blade has to be cleaned every week because it can rust easily. After that it is cleaned once a month for 3-6 months and then only every 6 months. It has to be cleaned every time you use it or show it to someone. It has to be cleaned every month for 3-6 months if you move it out of its usual resting place (you move to a new house where the humidity level is different).
Storage and Display
Traditionally, the Japanese sword is displayed as it is other words katana/wakizashi/tanto edge up, and tachi edge down or vertically. The tsuka (handle) usually faces to the left, as this shows the sword is at rest and not in a position to be drawn quickly by the right hand in an offensive move.
Tachi in a special tachi kake (stand) are sometimes also displayed upright.
Stands can vary from wall mounted horizontal racks, to stand-alone kake or professional cabinets. Standing a sword vertically with the point down will cause oil to pool in the bottom of the saya, so this is undesirable.
Swords with both koshirae and plain scabbards called shirasaya are sometimes displayed with the koshirae separate using a wooden blade called a tsunagi to keep the koshirae together. In this case, the sword in shirasaya is usually displayed together with the complete koshirae.
Newly polished swords should have a shirasaya and new habaki made for them. Old saya often have dirt and grit inside them that can scratch or damage the new polish. Because of the change of dimensions of the sword after polish, a new habaki is often fitted.
There are too many display options for the Japanese sword to list them all here. The most important part is to ensure that moisture does not affect the blade, and the environment is not too dry as to cause shrinkage and cracking of the wooden parts. In professional and sealed glass display cabinets with internal lighting, a glass of water is often left inside the case to prevent drying out. However always monitor the environment inside the room or cabinet for excess moisture or dryness.
When stored, the sword is placed inside a slightly padded sword bag with a tie cord. This prevents bumps from damaging the laquerwork and metalwork.

Buying and Selling

What books are recommended before buying?

Beginner books:
•The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords By Kokan Nagayama and translated by Kenji Mishina
•The Japanese Sword: A Comprehensive Guide By Kanzan Sato and translated by Joe Earle.
•The Samurai Sword By John Yumoto
•The Craft of the Japanese Sword By Kapp & Yoshihara
•The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Craft of Swordmaking and its Appreciation By Kapp & Yoshihara
•The Arts of the Japanese Sword By B.W. Robinson
•The Japanese Sword : The Soul of the Samurai By Gregory Irvine
•Nihon-To art swords of Japan By W.A.Compton, Homma Junji, Sato Kanichi and Ogawa Morihiro
•Samurai, The weapons and spirit of the japanese warrior By Clive Sinclaire
•Japanese swords and sword furniture in the museum of fine arts Boston By Ogawa Morihiro
•Facts and Fundamentals of Japanese Swords: A Collector's Guide by Nobuo Nakahara
•Encyclopedia of Japanese swords By Markus Sesko

Intermediate and up:

•Nihon Toko Jiten (two volumes) By Matsuo Fujishiro, Translated by AFU
•Nihon-To Koza (6 volumes) By Souemon/Kiyoshige, Translated by Harry Watson - AFU
•Japanese Swords and Sword Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston By Morihiro Ogawa
•One Hundred Masterpieces from the Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton: Japanese Swords, Sword Fittings, and Other - Christies
•Japanese Swords and Sword Fittings from the Collection of Dr. Walter A. Compton
•Japanese Swordsmiths By Hawley
•Nihonto Newsletter Vol 1,2,3 By Albert Yamanaka
•Yasukuni-to Tradition and Ideal Beauty By Tom Kishida
•The School of Hizen Tadayoshi By Roger Robertshaw
•Mino-To By Malcolm Cox
•Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords In The British Museum By Victor Harris
•Sword and Same' By Henri Joly
•Swordsmiths of Japan By Markus Sesko

Buying on eBay or online
95% or more of the old Japanese swords for sale on eBay today, were made tomorrow in China. Of the rest, many if not most have problems that the seller either doesn't know about or doesn't want to tell you about. The very few real and good quality Japanese swords on eBay are either labeled as such (maybe they have papers from one of the organizations in Japan) or they are diamonds in the rough. In the first case you will get a real and good quality sword but you'll most likely pay more than you'd have paid buying the same sword from a dealer; prices on eBay can be silly high. As for finding the diamond in the rough, the great sword for pennies on the dollar, even with decades of experience, can't always be identified from a few grainy pictures and a brief description. And if you can, then note that there are hundreds of fellow Nihonto enthusiasts who will have seen the same auction, and will bid at the end, driving the price up. There are few real bargains, and even fewer that slip through the cracks without everyone seeing them. Buying Japanese swords on eBay is a great way to burn through a pile of money fast. If you are a beginner you'd be smart to stay away from Nihonto on eBay.
Buying online, however, can be a great experience. Stick with well established dealers (many of which are linked on this Message Board) and ask advice if you're not sure about who is well esablished. Take your time, ask questions of the dealers, and study as much as possible about the sword you're considering.
Before even starting your search, read everything you can get your hands on, go to Japanese sword shows if possible, ask your way in to see other collector's collections, in short: STUDY. The more you know before you buy a sword, the better you'll do and the more you'll learn from the experience.
How to Pack and Ship a Japanese sword, by Grey Doffin.
How to pack and ship a Japanese sword:
In this article I will discuss 3 scenarios: a sword in shirasaya or koshirae, a sword with saya (scabbard) but with no tsuka (handle), and a bare blade. Whichever of these you are shipping, it makes sense to apply at least a thin coat of machine (sword) oil or, better yet, a layer of plastic food wrap (Saran Wrap) to the polished portion of the blade. If your package is opened and examined somewhere along the line (Customs say), the examiner is less likely to leave fingerprints behind

Shipping a mounted blade
It is of utmost importance that the pin through the sword's handle, the mekugi, be firmly in place and sturdy. If the mekugi is weak or missing, and if the package is dropped the blade can crash down inside its scabbard and shatter its kissaki (point). If the mekugi is weak, replace it. You can fabricate a temporary replacement from a bamboo chopstick.
A rubber band tightly round the handle will insure that the mekugi doesn't wiggle loose during shipment. Wrap the sword in plenty of padding: bubble wrap or soft foam, being careful to fold the padding over either end and tape securely to prevent the blade from coming loose in the scabbard along the way. Stiff foam lining the inside of the box is another good idea. Your box should be sturdy. Triangular or round tubes are better than rectangular shapes, as nothing will be stacked on top of them in transit. The cardboard tubes that carpet comes rolled around make extra sturdy shipping tubes.
If you are shipping 2 or more mounted swords in one package it is a good idea to dismount the tsuba and wrap them separately. This will prevent the tsuba of one sword from rubbing against the other. If you do remove the tsuba, wrap a rubber band tightly around the sword's nakago (tang) behind the habaki to take up the tsuba's space and keep the blade from sliding too deeply into the saya. Sometimes shirasaya will split along the glue line at the mouth of the saya due to rough handling in transit. To guard against this try the following. Cut a strip of paper about an inch wide and long enough to wrap one and a half times around the saya about 5 or 6 inches below the koi guchi (mouth or top of the saya). Tightly wrap masking tape around the paper. Now invert the saya on a counter top and force the paper/tape down as far as possible. If you have done this right the paper/tape band will be very tight and prevent splitting. At the other end of the trip it can be slid off and no tape residue will be left behind. The same process forced down the tsuka also makes sense.

Shipping a blade with saya only
Do not ship this combination with the blade in the saya. Without the tsuka and mekugi through its hole there is nothing to keep the blade from bottoming out inside the saya and shattering the kissaki. Tightly wrap the bare blade firstly in saran srap as above, and then in quite a few layers of paper, making sure to fold over both ends and tape the whole bundle securely. Wrap the saya in a few layers of paper and tape this bundle securely. Now lay the blade bundle on the saya bundle, with the point of the blade an inch or so above the bottom of the saya, and very securely tape the 2 bundles together. If the package is dropped it will be the bottom of the saya that will bump into packaging, not the sword's kissaki.

Shipping a bare blade
You will need a piece of very stout cardboard or something similar, or lightweight wood, that fits snugly inside the tube and stretches the tube's full length. Tightly wrap the blade in paper as described in the paragraph above. Securely tape the blade bundle to the cardboard sheet, making sure the tip of the kissaki is an inch or so above the bottom of the sheet. For added protection, you can tie a piece of insulated electric wire through the hole in the tang and cardboard sheet and around the sheet. The cardboard sheet will suspend the blade inside the package and if properly taped won't allow the blade to bump into the package.

Which shipping service to use
Some private shipping services don't insure antiques. If your sword is damaged or lost in transit you may not be covered even if they sold you insurance when you shipped; best to check up front.
I live in the US and I always ship swords with the post office (USPS). They will insure antiques, including Samurai swords, up to insurance limits. In order to collect if there is a loss, however, you have to be able to prove the value, usually with a receipt of purchase or sale. If you can't prove value insurance is worthless. Note: there are private insurance companies that might insure the sword in transit.
USPS registered post is the best option in the US; insurance is available but isn't usually necessary as these packages almost never get lost or damaged.
You will have to cover all places your tube could be opened without cutting into the tube with gummed paper tape. This tape will be rubber stamped when you hand the tube over at the post office, making any attempt to open the package visible. Every postal employee who handles the package between you and the recipient has to sign for it; The post office will know who had the package if there was a problem. If the package spends a night in a post office it has to be in a safe.
As my guy at the post office told me, if you lose registered you lose your job. Registered is less expensive than other services with insurance once you get above minimal value, another advantage.
For international, among the best options is EMS, sometimes called Priority Mail Express International or other names depending on the country. This can be tracked and insured, and imho is very reliable. Please check with your post office to verify the cost, and applicable destinations, as well as length limiations.

If you are shipping out of the country, you need to fill out a customs form and there are a couple things you need to take into account. There is already a detailed discussion of the customs issue on NMB; you will find it pasted at the top of the For Sale or Trade forum or here's the link: Customs will be on the lookout for ivory. If your shirasaya has ivory eyelets at the mekugi-ana and they find them you could be in trouble. If possible, carefully pry them loose and ship separately. Recently some of us have had customs problems with same', the ray skin under the wrapping of the sword's tsuka. No idea what the work around is for this one; good luck.

Sword Appreciation and Identification
Coming soon
What is my sword worth?
An often asked question with no real answer. When dealing with any art, the simple answer is that it is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. A $50K sword that has been for sale for the past 5 years is obviously not worth $50K, and pointing out that a similar one to yours is going for that price is meaningless. Fashions and tastes change over time. There has been a drop in sword prices over the past few decades. This is possibly due to the fact that interest has increased, but so has the availability. World markets also play a major part in pricing and the economic climate currently has had a detrimental effect on items considered "luxuries" such as art.
What is true though, is that Japanese swords are a relative bargain in the world of art. Whereas a top class painting might fetch a few million $'s, a top name smith's sword can go for a mere $100K or more. A one of a kind Kiyomaru sword can fetch $300K which in terms of world art is relatively low in comparisson with other art and big names. You can also pick up a decent hand forged 500 year old blade in polish for $10K, which in terms of art is a very low price indeed.
For every good sword though, there are hundreds of mass produced swords worth a fraction of that. And because each sword is one of a kind, there is no easy price guide telling you what a sword is worth. The best way to value a sword is to look at as many swords as possible that are for sale, and to know your subject enough to be able to identify what you have.
This is all apart from the pricing on non-traditionally made military swords that do not fall in the context of art. These are militaria and values depend on prevailing market situations. Prices on these have been steadily rising to the point that you are advised to look at dealer websites to get a feel for what they are selling for. Even the machine made NCO Shin Gunto which used to sell for $300 has been selling for close to $1000 and more in excellent condition lately, so for militaria I advise you to check the current selling prices on eBay and dealer sites to gather an idea for current prices.
For traditionally made swords, it all depends on condition and other factors such as shortening, era and smith. Theoretically, all other condition, maker and workmanship factors being equal , a wakizashi would be roughly half the price of a katana, and a tanto slightly more than a wakizashi. Shinto that have been shortened are far less desirable, and Shinshinto should not be altered at all. Shortening is more accepted in Koto blades due to their age. Unsigned swords and gimei swords take a hit in price, as do the amount of flaws and staining.
Generally, the older a sword and the more important the work..the more flaws are forgiven.

Blade restoration

Why polish a Japanese sword?
In order to see all of the activity in the sword's hamon and hada (temper and grain), the sword has to be in polish. Unlike most collectibles, it isn't wrong to polish a Japanese sword and restore it properly. In this respect, they are more like fine old oil paintings which get cleaned and repaired, than they are like fine old furniture on which the original surface is valued. Age patina on a Japanese sword is only valued on the tang (nakago) and this is the part that is never cleaned.
This is also where a good togishi will correct the lines, shape and features of the blade, and bring it close to what the original smith intended. Polishing a Japanese sword involves an incredibly complex routine which doesn't open up the surface grain, but allows the texture to be seen, and at the same time brings out all of the incredible activities in the steel. This is way to ultimately appreciate a Nihonto, and can only be seen properly when polishing has been done.
However, every time a sword is polished some of the sword is lost to the polishing stones. Eventually the skin steel will be gone, the less refined and coarser core steel will show through, and the sword's artistic, historic, and monetary value will suffer. For this reason, only a properly trained polisher should ever polish a sword. Proper training takes years of study, almost always in Japan; no one can learn to polish Japanese swords by reading books and watching videos. Amateur polishers remove too much of the skin and leave the sword with an improper polish, which will need to be redone properly, which will remove even more of the sword.
Japanese swords don't have to be polished to survive; there is nothing about the polish that protects the blade from corrosion. If you own a sword in reasonably OK old polish, there is nothing wrong in enjoying it as it is and preserving it. These is still a lot that can be enjoyed. Seek the correct advice before doing anything, and try and see a few swords in full polish so that you will know what is expected and what to look for.
I'm new to Japanese swords and I want to get my 1st sword polished and/or have koshirae made for it.
Slow down Grasshopper. Pretty much every new collector wants to do this. But it is not always a good idea. A polish isn't necessary to preserve your sword; as long as any active red rust is stabilized, your sword will be just fine in its old polish with proper maintenance. Sharpening = polishing and polishing removes steel from the blade and too many polishes remove enough steel that the blade's core steel starts to show through, a serious and ugly defect. Beginners often don't know how to properly care for a blade in polish. A new polish is easily scratched or even rust spotted and before you know it, the blade needs a polish again. Old scabbards can contain grit that can scratch a newly polished sword, or talking over a blade can lead to tiny droplets of moisture on the blade which turn into rust spots very fast.
Beginners often make the mistake of having their sword polished by an improperly trained polisher, which can irreparably damage the sword. Also,remember that not all swords are worthy of a polish: retempered, tired (core steel showing), and badly defected swords will not be worth the cost of polish. Low to mediocre grade swords are often worth less than the cost of polish. There are many periods in Japanese history where swords were produced as fast as possible, with less care about aesthetics and more thought about producing functional weapons. It is a fact that age doesn't necessarily mean value. In these cases your money would be better spent on a more worthy sword (or books). Learning to distinguish between mass produced utilitarian blades and those worthy of polishing is a huge part of your studies, and this is where the advice of knowledgeable collectors is invaluable. Spending $2500 on a polish for a sword that will be worth $1500 afterwards only makes sense if the sword has sentimental value. Otherwise, the money is better spent on upgrading. Having koshirae (mounts) made for a sword is also a common desire of new collectors. While this will do no damage to the sword if done by a professional, it can put a serious dent in your wallet. When the time comes to sell (and it will, unless you plan to be buried with your sword) you will be lucky to recoup half of what you invest in koshirae. Other collectors want original "Samurai" koshirae, not something you put together. Rather than jumping in with polish and/or koshirae, you would be smart to take your time to study and learn. With experience you will be able to make informed decisions and spend your money more wisely. Also, your tastes will change. A few years from now you'll be glad you don't have way too much invested in something you want to sell.
•Who should I have polish my sword and how much can I expect to spend? In the west, especially in the United States, there are many polishers to choose from. I can count on one hand the number of polishers outside of Japan who have proper training. A poorly done polish can do significant damage to a sword, both artistically and monetarily. Put another way, the most expensive polish is often the one that costs the least. We can not over stress this point: Don't give your sword to an amateur polisher.
•How do you know if a polisher has proper training? Ask experienced collectors (here on NMB, for example) who they'd recommend. If the polisher lives outside of Japan and he advertises his services on ebay or someplace similar, you don't necessarily want him to touch your sword; the true polishers have more than enough work without advertising.
•What will this cost? Prices vary with the condition of the sword to be polished but a good rue of thumb is $100-120 per inch of cutting edge. You will also need shira-saya (plain wooden mounts) and possibly a new habaki. You won't be putting a newly polished blade back in its old mounts because the polish can be scratched by any grit that found its way inside the saya over the centuries. Shira-saya can cost a few hundred dollars and habaki, if necessary, at least $200 more. This isn't inexpensive, which is why you need to make sure your sword is worth the expense. A properly trained polisher will be glad to look at your sword and give you good advice.
•How do I know if my sword is worthy of a polish? If you have been advised by knowledgeable collectors or other experts that your sword might possibly be worth restoring, one way to find out for sure that doesn't cost an arm and a leg is to have a professional polisher open a "window" on your blade. This is a small area of the sword that is polished to see the actual workmanship, hada, hamon and hataraki and see if the blade exhibits quality workmanship. Most polishers will do a window or at least look at your blade and give you advice. The other way is to find a sword study group or sword show near you and get the advice of as many advanced collectors as possible. Online opinions are at the bottom of the reliability scale, as there is only a limited amount that can be determined from pictures, but if from advanced collectors, is better than no advice at all. The key is to ask, ask, ask...before doing. Then take some more time and think it over before you make up your mind.
How much does it cost to restore a Japanese sword?

Polishing a Japanese sword is a major undertaking. There are only a handful of fully trained and competent togishi outside of Japan, and links to them can be found in the links section.
There are many others inside Japan, but please note that for any polisher, the waiting period can be from 6 months up to several years.
Within Japan, the laws for importing a sword make it easier to go through a broker. This is someone who will handle the import paperwork and deal directly with the polisher. This comes at a fee which can be a few hundred dollars, but is well worth it to be able to successfully complete the transaction with a minimum of hassle.
Outside of Japan, expect a similar waiting period. The better the polisher, the longer the waiting period usually.
Polishing comes at a significant price. The rate is usually between $50 and $150 per inch of blade cutting length. This means that an average katana of 25" blade length can cost on average $2500 for a decent polish. Then you have to understand that a newly polished blade usually requires a new habaki and shirasaya. Old scabbards usually have built up dirt and grime inside them that can scratch a newly polished blade, and therefore a new resting scabbard is recommended. The change in blade dimensions after a polish also require a newly fitted blade collar (habaki) afterwards. This can be as simple or as intricate as the customer desires. Expect a basic habaki to be in the region of $300 and a shirasaya to be around $400-600. These prices are estimates, and will vary depending on who is doing the work.

Should I have my sword polished or not?

This is a question that is often asked, and yet is almost impossible for anyone else to tell you. As can be seen above, polishing and restoring a Japanese sword is a major and costly undertaking. Spending $3000 restoring a sword that might be only worth $2500 after restoration doesn't make financial sense. On the other hand, for a good sword, the ability to be able to study it, learn from it, and appreciate it afterwards is reward enough for many people.
The first thing to decide is whether you have a decent sword or not. This cannot usually be seen merely from online photos or if it is badly out of polish. Fatal flaws can be hidden under rust, and the blade could be tired (worn down from repeated polishes)
The best thing to do is get it to a professional togishi who can open a window in the blade and see what the hada and hamon look like. This involves polishing a small part of the blade, and will allow the polisher to tell you if the steel is good and if the hamon looks good. With his advice, you can usually decide whether to proceeed or not.
The other way is to take it to a sword show or meeting near you. Although there isn't always access to these everywhere, in many countries there are sword appreciation groups and shows. Questions posted on a sword forum will usually tell you if there is a group, meeting or advanced collector near you.
It is usually not financially viable to have a sword polished merely to sell it. Adding the cost of the polish to the cost of the sword makes the end result fairly expensive. Unless you turn up a sword by a good smith for little money, you might ultimately lose money on the deal. In this case, it is best to sell the sword out of polish and let the future owner decide how to proceeed.
If the sword has been identified by experts to be by a big name smith or a very good piece, then it is recommended to have it restored, as the end result will be a sword that shows the smith's work as it was intended, and the blade should increase it's value accordingly. But this involves positive identification of the sword and its maker, preferably through a shinsa.
In some cases though, collectors will spend the money on a polish so that they can enjoy the piece and learn from it. There is no doubt that there is no better way to study Nihonto than to look at good swords, in polish. Little can be learned from a rusted and stained lump of steel. In some cases it is sufficient to just care for the sword and enjoy it for what it is, and leave the restoration up to future generations.
In the end...the question of "should I have it polished" comes down to your own finances and how dedicated you are to preserving the blade. Cheap polishes by amateur togishi remove metal and shorten the life of the sword. They should be avoided at all costs.
Self-study will assist you in judging the shape and style of a blade, and perhaps allow you to see something under the rust and grime that indicates the blade has potential. Feel free to ask for opinions on the internet forums, but take the replies as a guide only, and try and have the blade evaluated in hand by someone qualified.
Accept the fact that during the polishing process, fatal flaws or blisters or open grain can become visible that were otherwise invisible. This is one of the risks that come with this hobby. On the other hand, there is nothing as satisfying as seeing a blade that has come back from the polisher in all its glory, showing wonderful grain and a temperline that shows everything as the original smith intended. This is what collecting is all about.
So in conclusion, there is no fast and easy answer to the question of whether you should have a sword polished or not. If money is no object, then yes. If you are like the rest of us, you will want to take your time, get other opinions and weigh the financial outlay vs what you will gain afterwards before you decide.

How and Why....

Gimei (false signatures)
Gimei refers to a false signature. It does not mean that the sword bearing a gimei is fake, but rather that the signature is fake, added later, or by someone without the knowledge of the original smith. Some swordsmiths or dealers, in order to increase the saleability and value of a sword, would have the signature of a well respected (famous maker) swordsmith inscribed on the tang. This has been going on for a few hundred years. The known original signatures of the smiths are recorded in books, and a comparison of how a given smith signed his name is compared to authenticate. Other factor also enter play here, such as: is the sword of the correct time period of the signed smith, is the style of work the same as is known for the smith and is the work representative of the period/style? Detecting gimei is an art in itself. Some are easy to spot, others take a lifetime to identify. You have to have a decent library of original and verified signatures to even begin the identification process. This is a job for the experts, as even slight subtleties such as stroke length, pressure and direction can be give-aways. An understanding of how mei are chiselled is important, and recognising that a mei is essentially a signature, and therefore should be fluent and confident. Of course mei did change over the lifetime of a smith too, and old age could change the style of the mei. Therefore even more reason to seek the advice of a professional.
Gimei does not make a sword worthless. There are many fine swords with gimei on them. Each sword has to be appreciated on its own merits. However gimei does affect value, and a sword will not paper unless a gimei is removed. Gimei can be done hundreds of years ago, or yesterday. Note the stokes, and especially the age patina inside them. Does it match the rest of the nakago? Do the strokes look fluent, or very hesitant? All things to consider. And remember that when buying a big name sword without papers, regard it as gimei until proven otherwise.
How are we certain if a mei is fake, besides it looking newer compared to the age of the nakago?
1. Work is inferior and signature is high level.
2. Signature is in the wrong place (examples: sword is suriage, and has a nice signature up at the machi, -or- sword comes from a tachi era with a smith who would sign tachi mei, and signature is on the katana side, etc.)
3. Signature is too far outside the known styles of the smith (like mismatched handwriting)
4. Unfailing chiseling habits of the smith were not reproduced (like atari that always go in one direction being absent or going in the wrong direction)
5. Work is much newer than the signature would claim it to be, or wrong type for the maker (example: ubu Shinto katana with signature of Rai Kunitoshi on it)
6. Signature breaks a pattern, such as the Sue-Bizen habit of "Ju Osafune"
7. Faker used the wrong character for a smith, not having access to good information... I saw a gimei Soshu ju Akihiro for instance that had the wrong Aki character (since multiple characters exist that are pronounced the same way).

Why did some swordsmiths not sign their swords and why are there so many mumei (unsigned) swords?

There were many reasons why someswordsmiths did not sign their work. Perhaps not all of these were valid at the time, however they do indicate that there are many reasons why a smith might not have signed a sword, and lack of a mei does not necessarily indicate an inferior product. Among a few of the possibilities are the following:

1) The finished blade did not meet his standards, but was not scrapped as sometimes done.
2) He did not want the blade traced to him for personal reasons.
3) The blade has been cut down and the signature was lost (o-suriage)
4) The smith was not completely happy with the end result, but the situation dictated that the sword had to be released.
5) The smith regarded his work as superior work, and standing on its own merits without needing a signature to identify him.
6) A student made it without the teachers knowledge, but duplicated the style.
7) He needed to keep his identity hidden, perhaps making blades for an opposing clan.
8) He considered his works to be unique and identifiable enough without a signature.
9) Humbleness. he did not want to seem arrogant.
10) Request by the person ordering the sword.
11) A smith signing a sword would suggest that the sword belonged to him, where in fact he was probably a subject of a lord or monastery so him not signing the bladed was respectful.
12) Often, when a swordsmith got a chumon uchi (custom order) from a high ranking offical, he usually produced two or three blades and presented them to his client. The client picked one, and the swordsmith would engrave his signature while the remaining production were sold off without a signature.
13) The practice was not "en-vogue" at the time. It could be seen as a little arrogant and boastful to sign one's work.
14) The smith was apprenticed to another smith, and wasn't yet allowed to sign with his own name.
15) The smith was not yet fully qualified, but had produced work for sale.

How and Why did some swordsmiths get their titles

Japan was divided into 54 kuni ?, or provinces, at the time of the Taika reform. Some of those kuni were divided later, and some were added, so that in 823 AD the number was 68, which didn't change until the Meiji ?? restoration in 1868. The kuni were ranked, according to their size, as taikoku ??, jokoku ??, chukoku ?? and gekoku ??.

Originally governed by officials with the kabane ? (a court title) "Kuni no Miyatsuko" and "Inagi", of which emperor Jimmu ???? had appointed 144, they were replaced during the reign of emperor Kotoku ???? in the early Nara period ???? by the kokushi ??. The kokushi, gubernatorial officials, were headed by a kokushu ??, governor, and the titles they held are called zuryo ??.

The zuryo were (in descending order):

no Kami ? (governor, title of the kokushu)
no Suke ? (vice governor)
no Jo ?
no Sakan ?
no Shijo ??

Depending on the size of the province, the titles below "no Kami" were further differentiated, using either the prefixes dai ? or sho ? (in these cases the possessive predicate "no" is omitted): Daisuke ??, Shosuke ??, Daijo ??, Shojo ??, Daisakan ??, Shosakan ??, Daishijo ???, Shoshijo ???.
Domains with which the emperor rewarded princes or high officials were called shoen ??, the possessors thereof shoji ??. The shoji had only the produce of those lands, the land itself remained imperial property. The government of the land became more difficult as the number of shoen increased; some territorial lords started calling their domains shoen, too, and in the eleventh century, half of the country was thus converted into shoen. Some emperors tried to enact laws against this practice, but to no avail.
Minamoto no Yoritomo ???, the first shogun, started reforming this system with the goal of gaining stronger control over the lands. In 1185 AD, he entrusted the administration of the provinces to his vassals, who were called jito ?? in the imperial domains of the shoji, and shugo ?? (or shugoshoku ???) when appointed to "assist" a kokushi. The Kanto ?? provinces, which were directly under his jurisdiction, were governed by kuni-bugyo ???.
The shugo, who at first were called sotsuibushi ????, collected taxes, dispensed justice, and levied troops in case of war, gradually extended their power over the shoen, too, reducing the jito to secondary positions. Yoritomo himself was known by the title of Nihon-Sotsuibushi ?????? or Rokujuhakkakoku (68 provinces) no Sotsuibushi ?????????.
Another change came with Ashikaga ?? shogunate. The shugo became more powerful, and some governed several provinces. After the Onin war ???, they began to replace the kokushi, gradually forming the class of daimyo ??, and the jito were replaced by gokenin ???, house vassals. In the Edo period zuryo became in most cases merely honorific, awarded for merits in battle etc., and the holders had no jurisdiction over the respective provinces. There were, for instance, several Bizen no Kami ??? and Shinano no Kami ??? at the same time. Some exceptions applied, like the Shimazu ??, daimyo of Kagoshima ???, who bore the hereditary title of Satsuma no Kami ???.
Daimyo could appoint zuryo themselves, but the title had to be approved by the Imperial Court – which it usually did, for a fee, of course. The higher the title, the higher the fee. Not only samurai, but also sword smiths became eligible to apply for and receive such a honorary title.
Kinmichi (Kanemichi) ??, who founded the Mishina ?? school, received the title Iga no Kami on the 19'th day of the 2'nd month Bunroku 3 (1594), and worked also for the Imperial Court from that time onwards. Shortly before the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered 1,000 tachi from him, and due to the skillful management of all the workers, he was granted with the honorary title nihon kaji sosho ??????, lit. "master swordsmith of Japan". With that title, he had a certain influence at court on the granting of honorary titles for other swordsmiths. The title and the advisory function at the Imperial Court were hereditary, and held by successive Kinmichi generations until the bakumatsu era. It is said that they earned more money by acting as intermediaries for titles than by selling swords.

- Guido Schiller -

Why can't I buy and use an old habaki on my blade?

It is almost impossible to find a habaki that fits perfectly, since each is hand made and hand fitted to a blade, and everything depends on how many polishes your blade has had and the individual dimensions of your blade. Your best bet is to have one made by a professional. Having a new habaki made is fine as long as one is aware that if there is an existing saya involved, the new habaki may not necessarily fit the old saya correctly. Sometimes an adjustment can be made and sometimes a new saya will have to be made. Another point to keep in mind is that having a new habaki made on any sword eventually headed for polish is not a good idea, that is...not until after the new foundation has been established by the polisher, otherwise the habaki may no longer fit the sword properly. There is an order to the restoration process: foundation polish---> habaki---> shirasaya---> finish polish. This has to do with getting correct fits and exposing the blade/polish to as little opportunity for damage as possible.

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