collections

Photographs of Japanese Sword Guards (1916)

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Inlaid in silver and gold with a large millipede, on other side the Seta Bridge.

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.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. In high relief, inlays of different metals with a carved cat sleeping under a peony and butterfly, on the other side a hedge and butterfly.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of yellow bronze. In relief and inlaid with gold, silver, and shibuichi, plovers (chidori) above waves.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Inlaid in yellow metal, silver and bronze with a dragon ascending from waves, on the other side hares on waves.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, braided with yellow and red copper wire and studded with silver and bronze nails.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Relief carved silver and gold inlay depicting sennin (possibly Kanzan) standing under a tree by the water, indicating the moon with his right hand. On the other side is a landscape with a group of trees by the water and migratory wild geese.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of red bronze with three dice in negative silhouette and four dice in shallow silver and shakudō inlays on each side.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork. Gold-inlaid border and silver braided trim.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Wave and crescent moon in gold and silver inlays.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of yellow bronze with nine-starred coat of arms between tendrils in two-tone gold and silver inlays on roughened base.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork. Koto (musical instrument) and peony flowers in positive and negative silhouette within gold-plated hoop.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of shibuichi. Six slanted bamboo poles arranged within a gold-plated hoop.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, shaped like a heraldic crane (so-called chrysanthemum crane).

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, shaped like a round branch of the Empress Tree with three flowers and gold-rimmed vines. Attributed to Mataschichi.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, shaped like a heraldic crane whose open wings and tail feathers form the hoop. Eyes made of yellow metal. Attributed to Matashichi.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, depicting a brace with small spirals in gold inlay. Attributed to Kamiyoshi Masayasu (Rakuju).

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Eagle in high relief on yellow metal sitting in a pine tree, holding a monkey in its talons.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, shaped like a heraldic crane whose open wings and tail feathers form the hoop. Eyes made of yellow metal.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork. Spiked square with gold-inlaid clematis tendrils and border.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. Stylized pine tree and plum blossom in silhouette.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork. Jumping horse within plain hoop

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron with three arrowheads and openwork details.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with silhouetted wild geese in the rain.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with silhouetted cranes, reeds, and water.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with two entwined bamboo reeds.

japanese tsuba
Daisho tsuba made of iron, with openwork round mussels. Gold inlaid details.

japanese tsuba
Daisho tsuba made of iron, with openwork round mussels. Gold inlaid details.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with three bundles of twigs.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, large. Sennin Koshohei with his goatherd and his brother Shoki under a pine tree in high relief and inlays of various metals. On the other side is the sennin Shonken riding on a sword over waves under a blossoming cherry tree with a waterfall to his left.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron. In relief and inlaid with gold and silver, the bell of Miidera drifting on a long rope in waves.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork. Swastika (manji) in a simple hoop.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with Mount Fuji in clouds.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with a rounded millipede.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with the uta (poem) of Emperor Nintoku in low relief.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from shibuichi. In a high relief of shakudō, gold, and silver, boy riding bull and playing the flute; carved pine and meadow stream.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, of unusual shape, with high splashing waves in relief and engraved.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from shibuichi. In high relief and inlaid in shakudō, gold, and silver Fukurokuju (god of good fortune) and long-tailed turtles swimming in the water.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with a writhing dragon in a simple hoop.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from yellow bronze with silver inlaid grid pattern and a large butterfly in high relief made of shakudō. On the reverse side is a grid pattern in flat gold inlay.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron with a crayfish in high relief; gold details.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of red bronze. Shallow inlays of shibuichi, shakudō, silver, and gold with a wide veranda, on which there lies a half-opened fan lies, and, continuing over both sides, a brook bordered by a fern-covered bank and an old plum tree.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from shakudō. Shallow inlays of bicoloured gold and silver with migrating plovers over stylized waves.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from yellow bronze. Raised inlays of various metals with a fire salamander and two small bugs, on the reverse side a brook and grasses.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from yellow bronze with silver inlaid grid pattern and a large butterfly in high relief made from shakudō. On the back, grid pattern in flat gold inlay.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made of iron, openwork, with a tai (species of fish), a fishing rod, and a fish basket (all attributes of the Ebisu) in a plain hoop.

japanese tsuba
Tsuba made from shakudō. For Nanaku. Two butterflies in relief, whose lower wings are folded on the back side, one engraved in gold, the other made of shakudō featuring mother-of-pearl eyes on the wings, with a golden body and feelers.