An exceedingly rare set with fine mother of pearl inlaid string board
Base 12 mm
Middle 6 mm
Tip 5.5 mm
Base 20 mm
Narrowest 16 mm
Widest 22 mm
from base of head
Iron, steel, copper alloy, white metal, wood, gold
Peter Finer, London
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Japan in the 16th century was in the Sengoku period, literally "Warring States." A time of fierce civil war and clashes between warlords who were fighting over control of Japan. Around the same time, Europeans started to arrive on the scene and brought Christianity to the country, which was soon outlawed and punishable by death. Both events led to an exodus of Japanese refugees. Jesuit estimates put them at about 200.000 people. A good number of them were samurai, sailors, and/or converted Christians who did not feel safe anymore.
These boats attempted to land on Chinese shores, where they were not welcomed and were labeled as pirates. Possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy, many of them indeed fell into piracy. Others sailed on to find more welcome homes. They found this among others in Vietnam and Thailand, where Japanese settlements started to appear. From here, the Japanese found work as translators, middlemen, traders, and mercenaries.
Because the trip was extremely dangerous, these settlers were mostly men. They married locally, and within 2-3 generations, these Japanese communities had completely assimilated into local culture, with no one left who could even speak Japanese. One of the few elements of Japanese culture that did have a lasting effect in the area was the design of weapons. Some very good Japanese-inspired arms, but with typical Tonkinese workmanship and decoration, were made in the first half of the 17th century.
Presented here is an extremely rare example of a Vietnamese lance of the 17th century. Its forge-folded iron and steel blade is takes inspiration from Japanese yari heads.
It is attached to the shaft with a tanged construction, with what appears to be a peg going through the tang. Contrary to Japanese construction, the peg is aligned with the edges of the blade instead of the flats.
The foreshaft is reinforced with a copper alloy sleeve, decorated with floral patterns in raised relief. The floral motifs are gilt, while the lower background is stippled with a stamp and blackened. It gives the impression of Japanese shakudō, a gold-copper alloy often used there for sword fittings. Closer to Vietnam, there was a tradition of wu tong in Yunnan from which it also may have taken inspiration.
Below the sleeve is a gilt copper collar piece with three Chinese-style cloud head cutouts that were also very popular in Vietnam.
The shaft is made of dark reddish hardwood. It has a white metal ferrule at the bottom with a rounded spike with four ridges.
Comparable examples, dating & attribution
Big claims like this fine spear being rare a 400-year-old Vietnamese product need quite a burden of supporting evidence, so here we go:
A set of weapons with similar work was sent from Batavia to Cornelis Tromp in the Netherlands in 1679. It is currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Other examples of pole arms with the same origin are in the Danish Royal Collection, British Royal Collection, Czar Peter's former collection, and two in the British Museum.
I have in my own collection a saber similar to the Tromp examples, I had the hilt carbon dated which came out at 1453-1635 A.D. with 95,4% certainty.
Vietnamese saber with Japanese tachi blade.
16th to early 17th century.
It is most likely from the latter end of this date range, coinciding with the influx of Japanese refugees around the 1580s to 1630s.
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With forward swept iron guard and swollen grip.
Broad bladed example with horn hilt and engraved blade.
Collected by a Russian prince from the hill peoples of central Vietnam in 1892.
Description A rather unusual Vi
Of classic shape, with a leaf-shaped blade on a socket, connected by a cast bronze base.