Photographs of Japanese Sword Guards (1916)

In the mid-1890s, after health problems forced him to give up landscape painting, Georg Oeder (b. Aachen, Germany, 1846) threw himself into collecting Japanese art and artifacts — above all ukiyo-e prints and sword guards (tsuba). His collection of tsuba, which was one of the most extensive in the world at the time, was photographed and printed in a catalogue published in 1916. This catalogue is now almost all that remains of Oeder’s collection, most of which was auctioned off or lost after his death in 1931.

Oeder prided himself on being a conscientious collector. He amassed his tsuba, as well as other examples of Japanese sword mountings, during a seven-year stay in Tokyo. There, with the help of Wada Tunashiro and Akiyama Kysaka, as he writes in his introduction to the catalogue, he “purged the collection of counterfeits, eliminated excesses, and not infrequently obtained missing items”. Oeder was, thankfully, likewise conscientious about the photography and documentation of his collection, whose marvels bring pleasure to expert and amateur alike.

The tsuba in Oeder’s catalogue represents a wide range of styles. The earliest tsuba were made of leather or iron and served mainly the practical purpose of balancing the weapon and protecting the swordsman’s hand while thrusting. Then, over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (during the late Muramachi and Momoyama periods), new metals were incorporated, including copper, silver, shakudō, and bronze — allowing artisans to develop more complex motifs. These complex motifs, running the gamut from floral patterns to animal and human figures, make for some of the most memorable in Oeder’s collection.

When the Edo period began in 1603, tsuba grew more and more important as crest-like symbols for high-ranking samurai, who were no longer so frequently at war. As their function became increasingly symbolic, their designs and became increasingly ornate, and their materials (e.g. gold, which is not well suited for use in combat) increasingly flamboyant. By the end of the sixteenth century, the artisans who fashioned these symbols had already begun to specialize, to the point that they started signing their impressive handiwork. (Today, the work of these artisans, such as Shoami, Hoan, Yamakichi, and Owari, continue to be sought after by collectors.)

Oeder’s collection contained a number of Japanese sword mountings other than tsuba as well. There were kozuka, menuki (the ornaments on the handles of knives and swords), kashira (pommels), and fuchi (ferrules). All of them reveal exquisite beauty.

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