A chiseled iron sword guard depicting a Dutch ship with a figure on its stern.
74 x 71 x 5.5mm
Probably Sri Lanka
Iron, gold, copper
17th - 18th century
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An interesting pierced iron Asian export sword guard that is part of a small group of guards that were made with a multi-functional tang aperture, so that they can be fitted on European smallswords as well as Japanese swords.
It follows the general layout of a smallsword guard while having the discoid shape and size of the typical Japanese wakizashi guard.
For its decor, it incorporates a mix of various Asian design features that are combined in a way that is reminiscent of sawasa wares that were commissioned for a Dutch expat elite working all over Asia. This is mainly apparent in the two dragons biting on the same pearl on each side, a motif also seen in the knucklebows of sawasa smallsword hilts.
A small number of guards with a similar layout exist with VOC logo on them. Among which one in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Rijksmuseum accession number AK-MAK-1145.
A piece nearly identical to the piece that is the subject of this article, but this time made in brass, is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, accession number 2019.163.1.1
Others are published in Yoshimura Shigeta, Nanban Tsuba, one bearing the V.O.C. logo.2
A sword guard that exhibits a mix of Chinese, Japanese and European influences and that was made so that it could be mounted on both European swords and Japanese swords. It is part of a very small group of similar pieces that were probably made in Sri Lanka, commissioned by the VOC to be sold or presented during their travels across Asia. These items probably constituted some of the private trade that VOC personnel was allowed to conduct.
1. This guard was described by James L. McElhinney in Symbols of Status and Artistry, Asian Export Sword Guards and Nanban Tsuba. Orientations, vol 50, number 4, July August 2019. Pages 88-95. He gifted it to the Metropolitan Museum.
2. Yoshimura Shigeta, Nanban Tsuba, Japan 1998. See pages 63-67.
For those who care, the guard comes with NBTHK papers attributing the piece to the "Nanban school". This is a catch-all category for everything their sword fitting experts do not understand. As such, NBTHK papers on such mounts are of no added value. The judges do not seem to be aware of the fact that many of these are not even Japanese. There are even instances of NBTHK Nanban papers on purely Chinese sword parts.
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