Discover a remarkable Japanese Katana, probably from the 17th century, signed Suke Hiro. This exceptional sword boasts remarkable attention to detail and intricate design, with fine-quality steel, precise blade geometry, and beautiful decorative elements in both gold and silver. Whether you are a collector or a connoisseur of Japanese art and culture, this katana is sure to captivate your imagination and inspire your admiration.
Below is our report on the Katana that is set to be sold in our Spring Fine Sale on March 29th, 2023 (Lot 230). The report provides details of the sword, highlighting key features, the maker's signature, and the ornate design of the scabbard. The report also describes the blade, including its length, and shape, and examines the handle and guard of the sword.
This ‘Katana’ is identified by the two-handed grip or handle (Tsuka), the shallow curvature of the blade, the position and manner in which the sword is worn and, also, the positioning of the maker’s signature, which here appears on the side of the Tang (Nakago) which would traditionally face to the front, away from the body, where the sword is worn on the left side, blade curve up and held in place by the Kimono Sash. The ‘Nakago’ is signed – ‘Echizen No Kami Fujiwara Suke Hiro’. Suke Hiro was a renowned Edo period seventeenth-century swordsmith. Because of his fame, there are many fakes and copies of his work, so the signature alone is not a guarantee of authenticity. However, there are many interesting features on this sword and its scabbard (Saya) which would fit with the period that the signature suggests.
The Scabbard (Saya) – Ornately decorated in a dark green-toned lacquer with black lacquer mottling and all highlighted with extensive gilding. The black lacquered cord loop (Kurigata), is a further indicator that this sword is a Katana. The earlier ‘Tachi’ curved sword, from which the ‘Katana’ was ultimately developed, was essentially a cavalry weapon and wielded from horseback, whereas the Katana became the favoured weapon for hand-to-hand combat, on foot. The ‘Tachi’ scabbard would have two cord loops and was mounted suspended, unlike the Katana which has one loop and is worn through the belt sash. The finely chisel-engraved metal binding around the scabbard has been tested and proven to be Silver. The configuration of the metalwork around the bottom of the ‘Saya’ appears to be in keeping with some Edo examples observed. The Silver banding was worn by second-rank Samurai aristocrats. On this sword, the metal work on both the ‘Saya’ and the ‘Tsuka’ is beautifully enhanced by very finely hand-engraved leaf scrollwork. The highest ranks wore gold-bound swords.
The Katana Blade – This sword has a 76-centimetre blade length, measured from the notch on which the blade collar (Habaki) seats, to the point of the blade. The blade is quite long for a ‘Katana’, which usually has a blade length in the low sixty-centimetre range, though ‘Katana’ blades up to 80cm. have been recorded. This blade has a ‘Straight Hamon’ which is the line of a somewhat cloudy appearance immediately above the cutting edge and is an indicator that the blade has been ‘differentially tempered’ in the traditional manner. ‘Differential tempering’ is achieved by applying a layer of clay to the blade, of ever-decreasing thickness from the spine of the blade to the cutting edge, the last few millimetres having little or no clay at all, applied to it. The blade is differentially tempered by a process of forge-firing and quenching which produces the required hard-edged but flexible sword blade. It is worth mentioning that Suke Hiro achieved some fame in his later career when he developed a technique that produced the elaborately decorative ‘Toran Midare Hamon’ which, in appearance, resembled large high-rising ocean waves and was highly prized by the seventeenth-century Edo Samurai. There are, however, extant blades attributed to Suke Hiro, which show a Straight ‘Hamon’. Microscopic investigation of the ‘Hamon’ on this blade, appears to reveal the ‘Martensite Crystals’ at the tempered edge, reducing in density from the cutting edge towards the back of the ‘Hamon’ (nearest to the spine), all in all suggesting that this ‘Hamon’ is correct. A ‘Hamon’ can be contrived and faked by acid etching, but this does not appear to be the case with this sword. The naked blade and Nakago of this sword appear to compare visually to the 17th. century Edo blades of the period, illustrated in ‘Facts and Fundamentals of Japanese Swords – a Collector’s Guide’ by Nobuo Nakahara (translated by Paul Martin). The cross-section shape of the blade (Mune), appears to conform with the ‘gyo-no-mune’ shape seen on page 60 fig. 70 of Nobuo Nakahara’s guide. The patina on the ‘Nakago’ is of a brownish hue and the finishing hand filing marks are clearly visible.
The Sword Handle (Tsuka) – The ‘Tsuka’ is the double-handed grip which is separated from the sword blade by the blade collar (Habaki) and two sword guard spacers (Seppa) which sit on either side of the sword guard, itself (Tsuba). On this sword, there appears to be a ‘Tsuba’ maker’s signature, in the Kanji flanking the ‘Nakago’ aperture. We think that part of the inscription on the ‘Tsuba’ makes reference to Yamashiro no Kuni province and the Kanji to the left of the ‘Nakago’ aperture, though somewhat obscured by rust, can be the name ‘Tadatsugu’. Further research has revealed that there were at least three swordsmiths of that name working in Yamashiro province, between 1644 and 1673. The ‘Tsuka’ is held in place on the ‘Nakago by a Bamboo tapered peg (Mekugi) which passes through a single hole in the ‘Nakago’ and secures the whole assembly in place. The ‘Tsuba’ is plain iron with no adornment other than the Kanji characters mentioned above. The body of the ‘Tsuka’ is made from wood, before being traditionally wrapped in a layer of Ray skin (Samegawa). There are two gilded white metal, in this case, ‘Dragon’ talismans (Menuki), one on each side of the hilt where the sword is held and these are secured in place by a two-colour silk ‘wrap’ (Ito). The ‘Ito’ is secured at the ‘Tsuba’ end of the handle with the ‘Tsuka’ collar (Fuchi) and at the opposite end, by the ornate pommel (Kashira) which, on this sword is fashioned as two arms with hands folded, one on top of the other and embracing the top of the hilt. Both the ‘Fuchi’ and the ‘Kashira’ are emblazoned with the Family Crest (Mon) of the ‘Minokuni branch of the Ikeda family’, two of which are raised and gilded and two which are raised, but with no gilding. The circular ‘Mon’ is in the form of a stylised Butterfly.
Condition – There is some degradation of the Lacquer-work on the Saya and very minor fraying of the silk in the ‘Ito’, which is also grubby in places. There is a small loss to the point of the blade which becomes apparent under magnification. There is a small area of rust visible on the signed surface of the ‘Tsuba’. There is a minor distortion of the ‘Mekugi’ peg. Otherwise, the ‘Katana’ is in very good condition.
We have described this Katana to the best of our ability and knowledge but, ultimately, it must rest with the buyer regarding decisions as to authenticity and age.
To view or to leave a bid on the lot, click here: Spring Fine Sale - 29th March 2023 - Lot 230