The present-day collector of antique military swords inhabits a commercial environment quite unlike that of past generations. The rapid global expansion of the internet has been the most important development within the antique collecting marketplace, creating a dynamic and ever-changing platform for the sourcing and selling of military antiques.
Dedicated web sites have emerged to cater for the sword collector with both auctioneers and dealers quick to embrace the new technology. Customers now have the unique opportunity to both view and purchase antique swords directly from their own home computer.
Internet auction sites
Internet auction sitessuch as eBay have also become an important hub for both the selling and buying of antique swords. Substantial numbers of swords are traded every week and can be purchased with relative ease from almost anywhere in the world. The idea that a buyer would happily purchase any antique purely on the basis of a few photographs and a brief description would have seemed ludicrous only a few years ago, but this is exactly how antique swords are bring traded today.
This form of business is ideal for those unable to attend regular auctions and antique arms shows, but it must be made clear that this form of trading is not painless and a number of important caveats must be remembered. One of the most crucial is to ask the seller a series of detailed questions. The answers given will prove useful if the sword arrives and it does not tally with the original auction description. In the case of E-Bay, always check the seller’s feedback record as this illustrates the type of seller that you are dealing with and their previous history of transactions.
The main beneficiaries of this inflationary market are the auction houses who have realised that their business now has a global reach and can offer facilities for customers to view and bid for lots online. The time has long gone when only the bidder standing on the auction floor is guaranteed to take the lots home. Commission bids now frequently win the day. Many auction houses will also send prospective bidders digital pics of the lots via e-mail. Importantly, the emphasis is very much on the bidder to ask the appropriate questions concerning condition or provenance. Having said this, auctioneers are still right in emphasising that nothing can replace actually seeing and handling a sword yourself.
E-commerce can only expand further and looks set to be a major factor in the evolution of the market. This is not all benefit driven. It is an old adage in the antiques trade that demand invariably outstrips supply. This appears to be the current situation when trying to source good examples of antique military swords. Although it might seem that there is a reasonable quantity of swords available to buy via the internet and auctions, the actual quality of these pieces is sadly deteriorating. Examples in excellent condition are becoming extremely scarce. Added to this is the fact that prices are rising at an alarming rate.
The investment value of antique swords is obvious, and with average yearly increases of around 15-20%, you will be hard pressed to find a better return in any financial market. To date, the market shows no sign of slowing down or reversing.
Most collectors obviously do not wish to sell their coveted pieces, but it is reassuring to know that once bought, the value of a sword is likely to appreciate over time.
The smart collector should constantly update their knowledge of the subject. The purchase of books and the building of a sound reference library are therefore essential. If possible, make a point of buying a relevant book whenever you attend an arms show. The ability to correctly identify and value a piece will always give you the upper hand, and might even allow you to occasionally purchase a bargain. Do not assume that the dealer on the other side of the table has more knowledge than you. They do sometimes let a special piece slip through because of their own ignorance!
Arms Shows and Auctions
There is no substitute to visiting auctions, arms shows and museum collections. Go to as many as you can and follow some basic rules. When visiting an arms show, the most important rule is to take your time when inspecting a sword. Out of courtesy, always ask the dealer if you can inspect the sword. There is nothing more annoying to a dealer than to see their precious stock clumsily pawed by a novice collector. Always draw a sword out of a leather scabbard with the blade held vertically, point down, so as to avoid the danger of bending or breaking the leather at a weak point.
If the sword comes with a scabbard, put both alongside and compare the blade length with the scabbard length. Sometimes there can be a great disparity in lengths. Scabbards are easily swapped around, although some would have been legitimately replaced during their service lives.
Be wary of sword blades that do not fit snugly into the scabbard or are either loose or tight. Be also aware that with leather scabbards, a tight fit might actually be due to genuine leather shrinkage, so use sensible judgement.
Look at the patination of both the hilt and metal scabbard. Matched patination is what you are looking for. A brightly cleaned metal scabbard and dark patinated hilt are obviously suspicious. At many arms shows and auction houses the interior lighting can be quite poor. Large arenas are notorious venues where this disadvantage can hide damage, alteration and all manner of deceptions done to a sword. View the sword from as many angles as possible. Check that the blade has not been altered by looking at the tang button. It should not show any evidence of having been taken out and re-hammered back in. Unaltered tang buttons are invariably smooth and flush, with a dark age patination.
When involved in the buying process, do not be afraid to haggle with the dealer but do not offer a silly price. This is both insulting and makes you look foolish. If you have any doubts about the authenticity of a piece ask the dealer to confirm that it is genuine. Their response is normally enough to convince you either way. If the reply that you receive goes along the lines of; “I have no idea what it is.”, be very cautious. For security of mind, ask for a written receipt or official invoice with the dealer’s name, address and telephone number. The vast majority of dealers are honest and fair people so approach your purchases with a positive yet attentive mind. If attending an auction, always stick to your bid limit and don’t get carried away. Remember also to factor in the buyer’s commission when calculating your maximum bid.
Spurious blade engraving or etching has become a recent and troubling phenomenon. In the case of British swords, I have seen an ordinary mid-Victorian cavalry officer’s sword transformed (by the addition of a notable and distinguished name or presentation inscription) to a potentially “historic”piece. Fortunately, the modern forger tends not to possess the skills of craftsmanship inherent in their forebears, and their attempts are usually quite crude when compared with the original blade decoration. Always compare the quality of the two. New collectors will always be caught out by these deceits, and it is only through constant viewing and handling of the genuine article, that you will be able to distinguish between the right and the wrong piece. Even seasoned collectors started out by buying wrong pieces. It is a tough process that all collectors have to go through. Experience is the only educator in this fascinating field of collecting.
© Collecting Antique Swords and Edged Weapons – the Market Today article by Harvey Withers – militariahub.com