The Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armour
Online Auction: 2–10 May 2022 • 3:00 PM BST • London

The Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armour 2–10 May 2022 • 3:00 PM BST • London

T he Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armour offers an exemplary selection of works associated with the Japanese warrior class. The sale begins with the property of a European collector (Lots 1 - 33), revealing the dedication and discernment of the collector's passion for the arts of the samurai. The auction continues with equestrian accoutrements, with a fine chamfron (bamen), saddle (kura) and a stirrups (abumi), followed by a group of Momoyama to Edo period helmets and armours. The sale culminates with a collection of swords from an important private collector, exhibiting the blacksmiths perfection of form, technique and expression.

Auction Highlights

The Skill of the Armourer: Property from a European Collector

Sotheby's is proud to present the fine collection of a European collector, comprising helmets, mempo, armour and other accoutrements of the samurai.

An Introduction from the Collector

‘I have had the pleasure to be their temporary guardian’

In a way, collecting objects related to the arts of the samurai was not a predestined path. A long time ago, I happened to chance upon a cuirass with plates laced in silk braid from a window displayed at an antique dealer. I asked the owner what the origin of the piece was and was met with a reply that initially perplexed me – this was an armour of the Japanese warriors known as the samurai. Further pursuing this curiosity was wrought with difficulty at the time, as back then documentation for such objects were sparse. At first, I managed to gleam an understanding of these historical figures by looking at Japanese woodblock prints depicting warriors (musha-e). I soon understood that the cuirass I had seen at the antique dealer would not have been worn by a samurai, but was in fact the protective gear made for the light infantrymen unit deployed medieval Japan known as the ashigaru [lit. light of foot].

With a sudden interest in the art of the samurai, I began to look for objects related to them.

Furthermore, I decided to educate myself before purchasing anything – on one occasion, somebody tried to sell me a brass Japanese fireman’s helmet while assuring me that it was a samurai helmet from the sixteenth century!

It was later at a dealer’s in Paris where I first saw an authentic samurai armour. With much gratitude to them, I was given the address of another dealer of Japanese arms and armour, an English gentleman (who has unfortunately passed away recently). Together we discussed the arts of the samurai at great length, and it is with this connoisseur that I acquired my first armour. Thereafter I visited Paris on numerous occasions with the aim of acquiring new objects. I was extremely fortunate that the dealers I came into contact with were all passionate collectors and generous with their expertise, allowing me to better learn about Japanese history, the work of blacksmiths, their various schools and workshops, forging techniques, the construction of the helmet, mask and cuirass, signatures, periods, in essence, the whole universe pertaining to the art of the samurai. I am most grateful to all these benevolent experts for introducing me to it.

I was soon realised that what truly interested me in this art was understanding the different elements of which the armour comprised of – namely the cuirass, the helmet and the mask, and then to imagine the samurai who wore this armour. But, above all, most fascinating was the exchange with the expert, the collector, or the vendor of the object, to know the object’s history and then to examine and handle it. It is the objects that speak to me which attract me; they have a story to tell and allow me to evolve – they permit me wonderful encounters with enthusiasts.

The aim of building up a collection was not to display them in showcases. As a collector, an object does not belong to you. You are but their temporary guardian, and one day they will provide joy to another collector versed in their appreciation. Based on this principle of popular wisdom, and with the passing of time, I have decided to part with this collection in the hope that they will bestow their next passionate custodian with happiness, just as it had done for me during the time I had the pleasure of being their temporary guardian.

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Mempo: Masks for Daimyo and their Retainers

Helmets from Master Workshops

A honkozane do-maru gusoku [armour] The helmet signed Nakahachiman Yoshikazu kore wo tsukuru (made by Nakahachiman Yoshikazu) Edo period, the helmet dated Kaei rokunen mizunoto-ushi gogatsu kichijitsu (an auspicous day in the 5th month of the Water Ox [50th term of the sexagenary cycle], 1853)

The Myochin school fifty-two plate russet iron bowl with raised ridges, terminating in a four-stage copper-gilt tehen kanamono of typical chrysanthemum form, the first-stage chased and engraved with chrysanthemum heads in relief above scrolling foliage, russet iron mabisashi [peak], the fukigaeshi [turnbacks] in stenciled Dutch leather and applied with copper-gilt kikusui mon [chrysanthemum in water crest], two-tiered black lacquer manju-jikoro [rounded neck guard] with kebikiodoshi [close-spaced lacing] in blue braid, the copper, copper-gilt and patinated metal maedate [forecrest] in the form of an articulated dragonfly, the wings inlaid in mother-of-pearl, the russet iron ressei mempo [face mask with fierce expression] forged with deep wrinkles, detachable nose plate, yak hair moustache, red lacquer interior, two tiered yodaregake [throat protector] laced in matching braid, the do-maru [cuirass that wraps around the body without hinges] in black lacquered honkozane [true lamellae], the muna-ita [upper chest] in stenciled Dutch leather, the gyoyo [shoulder strap covers] similarly decorated and applied with further kikusui mon, five-tiered sode [shoulder guards], chainmail kote [sleeves], silk brocade lining, eight tassets of five tiered kusazuri [skirt], kawara-haidate [thigh guards] lined in silk brocade, all components laced in matching braid, shino suneate [shin guards], with sashimono [banner] in the form of three slender leaves of the barin [iris], with black lacquered wood saihai [commander's baton], with an armour display stand and two armour storage boxes.

View Lot

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The Art of Japanese Armour

Society in feudal Japan was rigidly hierarchical, with at the apex, in theory at least, the emperor. However, for most of the second millennium of our era the country was really governed by a military dictator, or Shogun. Although reverence was still paid to the emperor, in practice he was almost powerless, confined to his palace in the capital, Kyoto accompanied by his hereditary courtiers, performing ceremonies. It was the various grades of the military class or buke, who had control of the country. Within this class there was also an hierarchy that varied somewhat depending up on the period. Beneath the Shogun were a number of territorial lords, later called daimyo, who commanded armies made up of immediate retainers and various ranks of other vassals who are popularly called samurai.

Early armours were lamellar, made from thousands of small plates laced together in rows fastened to each other by silk braid. By the late Muromachi period farmers and peasants armed with spears that could penetrate lamellar armours were being recruited to increase the size of armies. This led to the abandonment of rows of scales, replacing them with hinged iron plates. Samurai wanted to stand out and be noted for their heroic deeds. Armourers obliged by inventing dozens of variations of helmets and body armour. All manner of helmet shapes were made with different numbers of plates, with or without standing rivets and frequently ornamented with elaborate gilded crests of leather or wood. Helmets were often left unlacquered, but given a russet finish to show the quality of the metal. Neck guards became less conical with the lower edge shaped to the shoulders to prevent spears entering. Practical helmets could be embellished with elaborate superstructures of lacquered wood, leather and paper representing objects, animals, plants or just abstract shapes. Masks of iron protected the face as well as providing a secure anchoring for the helmet ties. Cuirasses were produced with different numbers of hinges and arrangement of plates, lacquered in different colours and textures. It became usual to wear an identifiable flag or other ornament attached to the backplate, that for common soldiers allowed a commander to identify their troops.

During the largely peaceful Edo period that began in 1603, practical armours continued to be made, but as the prospect of war receded, older details began to reappear. A feature of the era was that the Daimyo had to attend the Shogun’s court for half their time. They vied with each other in the flamboyance of their armours, jinbaori or surcoats, retainer’s costumes, horse equipment and the flags and banners displayed on their marches to and from the capital. Being an era of peace, many of the armours had become little more than a costume, some even being made almost entirely of lacquered rawhide to minimise weight. Iron armours might have the cuirass and other elements left russet and embossed with dragons, virtuous characters or Buddhist deities reducing its defensive capability. By the end of the 18th century was a period of nostalgia for the past. Accurate copies of ancient armour styles of armour were being produced to demonstrate the status and wealth of the wearer. It was an era in which almost all styles, practical, impractical were made and worn. Algernon Mitford, later Lord Redesdale described The entry of the Shogun into Osaka castle: ..warriors dressed in the old armour of the country, carrying spears, bows and arrows, falchions curiously shaped, with sword and dirk, ….. Their jinbaori, not unlike herald’s tabards, were as many-coloured as Joseph’s coat. Hideous masks of lacquer and iron, fringed with portentous whiskers and mustachios, crested helmets with wigs from which long streamers of horse-hair floated to their waist, might strike terror into any enemy. They looked like the hobgoblins of a nightmare.  

By Ian Bottomley, Curator Emeritus, The Royal Armouries, Leeds

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Nihonto: Property from an Important Private Collector

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