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Bonhams Samurai arts selection a cut above, sale reveals interest in this specialized field
A Myochin iron eccentrically shaped helmet (kawari kabuto) By Myochin Muneyasu, dated 1789. Est. US$20,000-30,000. Sold US$37,500. Photo: Courtesy of Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- With impressive results for Samurai swords and armor, the Bonhams October 16 Arts of the Samurai sale proves Samurai culture has lasting appeal. Absentee, telephone and online bidders were particularly well-represented, revealing interest in this specialized field reaches far beyond the usual perimeters of the art market. Bidders from the US predominated, doubtlessly drawn to the sale by Bonhams Madison Avenue window display of Samurai armor, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition celebrating curator Bashford Dean and the creation of the museum’s Arms and Armor department. That said, the UK, Europe, Japan and Hong Kong also vied for success.

As Bonhams Japanese Specialist Caroline Gill sees it, Samurai arts occupy a unique space that appeals directly to individual connoisseurs, both established and emerging. This was particularly evident with the armor on auction – every piece of armor Bonhams offered sold after competitive bidding, almost exclusively to private collectors interested in integrating the aesthetics and history of these pieces into their personal spaces. For this reason, these thrilling examples attract lots of attention when they come to market. An 18th century suit of armor laced in orange with a Muromachi period helmet by Yoshisada was not only the top armor lot, but also the oldest example included in the auction. The stunning and complete suit, with its striking orange lacing, brought $43,750, easily exceeding its high estimate of $35,000. The sale’s cover lot, a Myochin school iron eccentrically shaped helmet (kawari kabuto) from the 18th century also did very well. The remarkable helmet, referencing a mythical kappa or tengu (mischievous Shinto spirit creatures thought to inhabit the human realm) achieved $37,500, versus a pre-sale estimate of $20,000-$30,000.

While the armor featured in the sale capitalized on the tremendous private interest, the auction’s formidable collection of swords appealed primarily to the most knowledgeable of arms collectors and dealers. Bidders interested in both blades and Japanese arms flocked to the diverse selection. As Ms. Gill explains, “Arms appreciation is an intensely academic pursuit, and it takes complex understanding of the field to truly evaluate any given piece.”

Happily, Bonhams was able to please the most discerning individuals and trade representatives with the high-quality swords on offer. The auction’s top lot, an extremely rare 14th century Sekishu Juyo katana by Naotsuna from the Nanbokucho period, in excellent condition and featuring a lively temper line, sold for an impressive $134,500. But it was not exclusively six-figure swords that attracted attention. Selling at 2.5 times its high estimate, a later Mihara katana with mounts from the Muromachi period also brought a notable result at $20,000. According to Bonhams Director of Japanese Works of Art, Jeff Olson, “Samurai swords will always hold their allure. With their unique construction, distinctive steel tempering and composition, they have always been highly prized for both efficacy in combat and their physical beauty.”

Enthusiasts can look forward to more art of Samurai in Bonhams upcoming Japanese Works of Art sale, scheduled for March of 2013.

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