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Collecting, authenticating and appraising antique weapons

Collecting, authenticating and appraising antique weapons

photo by Royal Armouries

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You’ve decided to collect antique swords?  Congratulations;  it’s an interesting and exciting hobby, but you’ve got your work cut out for you!

In this article we’ll look at the very basics of learning to identify and appraise weapons;  while in most of this article we’ll talk about blades, the following can apply to most hand-held weaponry.   Let’s be clear;  becoming well versed in authenticating swords requires much study and dedication.  The reward comes in finding an unexpected treasure at a yard sale, at an auction, on E-bay or similar online sales house, or in dealing with other collectors.

In this article we’re going to examine the very basics learning to recognize and authenticate an antique blade.  This process can be more-or-less used for any blade in any geographical region, with the exception of the Japanese nihonto.  As Japanese blades have long been collected and preserved as items of art, a very specific and highly-technical process for sword authentication and appraisal has been created (kantei).  This will be the subject of a separate article.

A number of blade collectors have commented that people new to antique blades tend to purchase first, then learn about swords afterwards.   Which, once you think about is, is more than a little backwards.  If you don’t have a basic concept of the history and development of the type of blade you’re interested in, their form and function, who might have made them, what a period scabbard or hilt ornamentation would look like, how can you judge if a sword is worth the price being asked?

SwordsFor beginners then,  the easiest and safest, if not the cheapest,  way to begin your collection is to purchase your first antique sword through a recognized, licensed antiques dealer;  preferably one which supplies a guarantee and letter of authenticity along with the sale.  Such proofed blades come at a premium price, but for beginning collector this is the safest way to start.

Once you decide it’s time to start depending on your own opinion of the authenticity or value of a blade, you move into the wonderfully interesting but extremely complex world of sword appraisal.  Swords with various claims of antiquity or having belonged to famous people are offered for sale in common antique shops, at auction, on the Internet through portals ranging from E-bay to museums, and — of course — through personal sale between collectors or through a variety of online stores and web forums.

Generally speaking, collectors gain experience in sword appraisal through study, and by seeing and handling as many old blades as possible.  By studying their form, dimensions, uses, accouterments and accessories.  By learning about their manufacture, steel quality, hallmarks, smiths and foundries.  By reading up on their history, where they were used, sold and traded.  And, by joining collector’s organizations where they can learn from the experience of others.

MacesGiven all this, perhaps it’s not surprising that sword collectors and appraisers often specialize in the blades of one type, time period or geographic region.  While most collectors could tell you the difference between an English an  Italian rapier, only a true expect would be able to discern at a glance a sword’s manufacturer, time period, whether the blade matches the hilt and other accouterments.  More importantly, they can tell the difference between an authentic blade and a fake.

 

 

Steps in appraising weapons

Truly, there is no set, simple way to conduct a sword appraisal, particularly for European blades.  A common list of “Seven steps for sword appraisal” — much repeated on Internet sites — comes from E-How.com.  Always keep in mind that fakes are omnipresent, that even licensed appraisers can be mistaken, and that the Internet is full of people willing to swindle the unwary.  Not discouraged?  Then read on…

  1. Know what type of sword you wish to appraise. Is it a medieval sword? Samurai sword? A sword from the American Revolution or Civil War?
  1. Check the craftsmanship of the sword for design, function and durability. Remember that different types of swords are designed for different purposes. For instance, Japanese samurai swords were generally designed for cutting and slicing, while medieval swords were geared more towards thrusting at gaps in the opponent’s armor. Samurai swords were wielded with two hands, while medieval swords were held in only one.
  1. Check the hilt of the sword for carvings or designs. The pommel (the knob at the tip of the hilt) may be carved or molded to look like an animal, such as an eagle or a dolphin. This can add to a sword’s value.
  1. Check the blade for sword marks, which may provide clues to a sword’s age and origin and help you appraise it. With antique swords from around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you will generally find brief text at the bottom of the blade, near the hilt, indicating the manufacturer and the year the sword was made. Antique samurai swords have markings as well, called Horimono. They usually extend up the length of the blade.
  1. Know the type of blade of the sword. Check how many grooves (fullers) the blade has and the blade of the blade.
  1. Check the hilt for the style of grip the sword is and how it is designed. Where is the hand placed in relation to the hilt? This can indicate the style of sword, time frame and region where it was made.
  1. Check out reference websites and join collector communities.

In other words, make sure you know about the type of blade you want to appraise.   Know the parts of the sword.   Know if the hilt and it’s material is correct to the time period, manufacture and style of fighting of a given blade.

common blade crossectionsInspect the blade and tang for hallmarks, maker’s marks (including filing patterns) or inscriptions which can date a blade, give clues to its origins, or add value by either proving it comes from a special weapon-smith or belonged to a historical figure.

Know about period sword blade design, geometry and features.   Blade dimensions or shapes which are wrong for the time period or the intended style of fighting are a strong hint the sword may not be what is claimed.  There are number of typologies (classifications) for swords, the best known being Ewart Oakeshott’s highly regarded typology of swords, which breaks down blades from the Viking period to early Renaissance into 13 classifications.

 

 

There are other classifications of sword created by various academics over the last 100 years, which are used to a greater or lesser extent, often for specific sub-classes of blades, or on a national or geographic level.  These include the :  Bruhn-Hoffmeyer typology of Medieval swords, Alfred Geibig’s Medieval sword typology, and the Viking sword typology of De Norsk Vikingesverd (1919), by Jan Petersen.

 

Hold the blade.  The feel of a real antique weapon can be strikingly different from a modern imposter, mostly due to the skill of the smith in proportioning the blade, as mentioned in the following video.

 

 

Finally, it’s suggested you contact and join sword appraisal and collecting groups, to both give you access to information useful in verifying a blade, and so you can get help from the more experienced members of the collecting community.    Personally, I can’t recommend this step highly enough.   Some well regarded online groups of collectors and appraisers include (listed alphabetically):

 

Antique Swords.org – Blogs and discussion forums on collecting, conserving and identifying swords.

Arms and Armour Forum – (Note: this forum suffered a hacking attack and is in the process of rebuilding) Public discussion forum on all aspects of arms and armour collecting

My Armoury – Information and discussion for the collector of both arms and armour.

Sword Forum International – Public discussion forum dealing with bladed weapons of all types and from all periods.

 

Seeing experienced appraisers perform an analysis is one way to pick up tidbits of information.  You can attend local or regional sword shows and talk with the exhibitors and guests.  An online version of this is the The US Antique Roadshow which has been recording snippets of their episodes and making them available online for free.  .  Unfortunately, the video formats used by PBS seems to have varied, so some videos will only play in certain web browsers, or only with certain plugins, or may not play at all.

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