ADVICE FOR NOVICE COLLECTORS
As a fairly new collector of Japanese swords, I have found that while there is a tremendous amount of information out there about Japanese swords, very little of it is targeted at those who are at the "I want one - what do I do now" stage of collecting. This article offers some suggestions to those just beginning the study and collection of Japanese swords.
The first thing to do is to identify what it is that you want. Are you just looking for something to "hang on the wall", use for martial arts (iaido, etc.,), or are you interested in the "real thing"? If you just want a wall/desk/fireplace ornament, perhaps you should first look at some of the many replica Japanese swords that are currently available. Most of these are far less expensive and much easier to care for than "real" Japanese swords. If you are looking for a sword for martial arts, I would advise first talking to your sensei. She or he should be able to give you a list of properties to look for and/or get you in contact with one of the many manufacturers/resellers of swords specifically for martial arts. And finally, if you want the "real thing", consider carefully what you want and how much you are willing to spend for it, in terms of both time and money. Real Japanese swords can vary in price from a few hundred dollars or less for a beat up gunto sword (made from bar stock and/or oil quenched) to somewhere in the 6 figure range (or possibly more) for a great sword (a piece with great historical significance and/or was made by a great smith and/or has been published in a number of sword books, etc.,). In addition, there are a great variety characteristics and types of Japanese weapons to choose from.
Should you decide that you wish to pursue getting a "real sword", then the next thing to do (which I can't stress enough) is to become educated about Japanese Swords - especially before you spend any money on them. If you are lucky enough to have a sword appreciation group nearby or can find other collectors local to you, contact them - finding somebody knowledgeable to talk to about Japanese swords is a great way to learn. Read everything you can find about Japanese swords - there are a number of good introductory books. If you're lucky, a kindly collector might let you peruse their copies of these introductory books. If you decide that you want more than a piece or two, be prepared to spend lots of money on books (you should probably consider purchasing copies of Nagayama's The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords, Hawley's Japanese Swordsmiths, Harry Watson's translations of Nihon To Koza, and Fujishiro's Nihon Toku Jiten sooner than later). A lot of these more "advanced" books actually aren't that bad an investment in any case - you tend to be able to sell them for at least what you paid for them, which is something that isn't necessarily true of the swords themselves. Attend some of the Japanese sword shows if you can so you can look at a number of pieces, make contact with other collectors and dealers, etc., - just don't buy anything initially - This can be really hard, but I've found that one collector's observation that "there will always be another piece" is true. Join one or more of the sword societies (JSS/US, etc.) - they are great sources of information. There are also several sword related mailing lists - sign up on one or more of these and "lurk" for a while - you'll learn a lot.
If you have gotten this far and have decided to purchase a "real" Japanese sword, I'd recommend the following:
1. Study, talk to knowledgeable collectors, attend sword shows, etc., BEFORE you buy anything in order to get a good idea of what you are looking for (era, type of piece (katana, tachi, wakizashi, naginata, yari, tsuba, etc.,) activities in a blade that you like, what flaws you are willing to put up with, how much you want to spend, etc.,). I'm repeating myself here because this is VERY important.
2. DO NOT BUY SWORDS ON ONLINE AUCTIONS UNTIL YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! Do this and you'll save yourself from learning the expensive lessons I did. It is very difficult to determine the true condition of a sword given the poor photographs, incomplete descriptions, etc., which run rampant there. If you do decide to buy on an online auction, try to stick to sellers who are either known to you or have a good reputation, offer an inspection period, etc. Sometimes sword books can be had for a reasonable price, though its been my experience that as often as not you'll be able to purchase an identical book from a reputable dealer (check this site for several) for less.
3. Do not buy a "fixer upper" as your first sword. While the thought of finding an "undiscovered treasure" is definitely seductive, realize that restoration is very expensive, and there are a lot of pieces out there that simply aren't worth restoring (you can find an equivalent piece that is in polish for less than the cost of the out of polish piece and the required restoration). There is also considerable risk, particularly for the beginner, of getting a piece with hidden and/or flaws (kizu) or a piece that is too badly damaged or "tired" to be restored correctly.
4. Seriously consider purchasing your first piece(s) from a reputable dealer. You'll probably pay more, but a reputable dealer usually won't steer you too far off course (they have a reputation to protect (the sword collecting community is very small), and they also tend to like repeat customers). If you have reason to believe that the asking price is too high, don't be afraid to try and dicker - you can only pay less, and if it doesn't work out, "there will always be another sword"...
5. Consider initially only purchasing pieces that are in polish, preferably with "papers" from one of the major sword conservation organizations (NTHK or NBTHK). An "in polish" piece is good because 1) you don't have to pay to restore it and 2) the flaws/activities are there for all to see, which reduces the risk considerably. Note that what is meant by "in polish" can vary considerably. Having papers from one of the major organizations is important because it affirms the quality of the piece, the validity of the signature (if the piece is signed) - both of which are very important, especially for a beginning collector. In addition, it will make the piece much easier to sell in the future, as the next buyer will have the same guarantee of quality.
6. Think carefully before purchasing an unsigned (mumei) piece or a piece that has a forged (or possibly forged) signature (gimei). While you can frequently find excellent swords for reasonable prices that are mumei, they are also harder to sell (which is why you should get the piece for a good price to begin with). I do not consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to give much advice on gimei pieces other than to note that you are "rolling the dice" when you pay for a piece with the signature of an important smith on it - the risk is greatly reduced if you have an independent expert or sword organization (notably the NTHK) verify it. While "a good sword is a good sword" and false signatures can be removed fairly easily (about the same amount of hassle as sending the piece to Japan for polish), it's often not worth the trouble (you'll end up spending more total than the piece would be worth) and it therefore might be foolhardy for a beginner to take on one of these pieces.
7. Age is not necessarily an indicator of quality - while there have been excellent swords made from the late Heian period to the present, there have also been a great many poor blades produced over the same period - I've found the saying "a good sword is a good sword" to be a good thing to remember.
8. This may sound obvious, but be sure to get instruction in the "care and feeding" of your sword. Careless handling and/or neglect can result in damage that can seriously reduce the beauty (and value) of a piece.
And finally, should you become a collector, one of the best tidbits of advice I've gotten to date is to limit the size of my collection to a few pieces - and sell off the stuff you like the least after you've hit your "limit" and find something new to buy. This will allow you to truly appreciate each piece rather than having a closet or safe full of stuff to which you're a slave.
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