Modern Ko Katchushi and Ko Tosho style tsuba.

In my travels to sword shows over the past few years I have noticed a steady increase in the number and ability of American amateur tsuba makers. These guys-I don't know of any women yet-make tsuba for their own amusement. At least one reports that tsuba making is a great vent for general tension and frustration as an added benefit. They will sometimes put these tsuba out for sale at quite reasonable prices and with a clear statement of what they are, which is of course brand new. Some of the better work being done these days is starting to look fairly good, and there is the big problem. I am not concerned about the makers of these tsuba. Those I have met do not even come close to misrepresenting their work to a potential buyer. My concern is in what happens to these tsuba after they leave the maker's hands. I have already seen one of these tsuba turn up for sale on a dealer's table. I later saw this tsuba in the hands of a new owner showing off the great deal ($500) he made on his katchushi tsuba. I don't know if the dealer "merely" failed to reveal the modern make of the tsuba or if he actively misrepresented it. I suppose it's possible he may not even have known himself.

Here are a few things to watch out for. The patina of these tsuba is usually pretty dry. Sort of a flat color without a lot of life to it. If you're comfortable behaving this way in public, you may want to taste it if in doubt. You may get a distinctly chemical flavor that you never get from an old patina. Another thing is the pitch of the sound they make when rung. I'm not sure why, but all of the ones I have handled have either a much higher or much lower pitch than any old tsuba of a similar size and thickness. I suppose that this is the result of the metal and tempering being different. Even the best work will tend to show an unbalanced feeling to the sukashi. These tsuba almost always copy a classic design. As a side note, these modern tsuba are an excellent illustration of how good the real thing is. Very subtle differences in the size, shape and placement of the design elements can make or break the impression of the whole. The iron, so far at least, generally fails to show tekkotsu and the hammer work is not as skillful as in the real thing. So, if you see what looks like a classic old tsuba that somehow feels a little funny, remember to walk yourself through a careful evaluation of all of its features. Don't let your acquisitive urge short circuit your brain. As with everything, handle as many good examples as you can, and use all of your senses to make sure that tsuba is as good as you want it to be.

Note: another thing to watch out for are tsuba that have been "restored." There are a number of people out there who are drastically cleaning and/or repatinating tsuba. I know of exactly one man in the US who reliably does high quality work that can be considered restoration. When the original surface is gone, or the guard is otherwise seriously damaged, this work can be an improvement if done properly. Color can be restored, metal moved and cracks can be filled with a mixture of epoxy and iron oxides mixed for a color match. When done as an honest restoration of fatally damaged guards, this is acceptable. I would like to see these tsuba identified as having been restored when offered for resale, but this is probably asking too much.

Unfortunately, there are more people here and abroad who make a habit of indiscriminately stripping down, polishing and recoloring tsuba. These tsuba may have been good classic pieces, but in their altered state they are nothing. Again, the warning signs are that the tsuba appears to be in unusually "good" condition but has either a flat, dry color or an unusually shiny one. This sort of work covers the spectrum from awful to fairly good, so again it is necessary to scrutinize all aspects of the tsuba. Some of these people do occasionally produce good-looking work. If it doesn't seem to add up properly, it has probably been reworked and should be avoided. The people dealing in these altered guards don't tend to represent them as what they are, or offer them at low, rework prices. Be careful.

Copyright 1996 Jim Gilbert

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