Collector's Guide

What are ethnographic arms and armour?

Ethnographic arms and armour describes weapons and combat protective devices other than the standardized military models of the past few centuries and is likely a product of an individual artisan working according to traditional patterns as opposed to a product of modern mass industrial production. Militaria is thereby excluded by our definition. While modern custom work would qualify as an artifact of our own culture under this definition, such items are not considered here, as they are better represented elsewhere.

Is it authentic?

An authentic ethnographic edged weapon is one produced of traditional materials in a traditional style of the culture producing it and intended for wearing and use within that culture. In this context, it should be remembered that styles and materials of choice naturally and legitimately evolve.

Native artisans found a fertile new market for their works during times of colonization and conquest, and very fine examples of traditional workmanship were created to suit the tastes of the new governing class and their visiting countrymen. It may be difficult or impossible to accurately discern these earlier and better grades of work, now patinated and antiques in their own right, from those objects formerly made exclusively for the culture's own use. New styles and tastes would evolve from this fusion of the cultures and the locals would often come to prefer and adopt the restyled variants for their own use and wear. As with modern bladesmiths' creations in archaic and exotic styles, colonial era examples, even when recognized as such, may remain very desirable in their own right.

Left: An authentic Igorot "head-axe" from the Luzon highlands. The overall weight is 590 grams and the blade varies in thickness with multiple tapers, up to a maximum to 4.6 mm. Well forged and finished with a hardwood haft displaying varying cross-sectional areas and carving with crisp definition.
Right: A tourist-grade axe sold along the roadside near Banaue in 1974. The overall weight is 390 grams and the sheet metal-like blade is a uniform 2.2 mm in thickness. The soft wood shaft is simple in section, crudely carved and decorated with aluminum inlays.

On the left, an antique koummya mounted in well-worn hallmarked silver of good quality and with a silver trimmed well smoothed hardwood grip. The well defined blade ranges up to 4.5 mm in greatest thickness.
To the right, a tourist-grade koummya (Moroccan dagger) in mountings of brass, nickel silver with a roughly finished soft wood grip. Although superficially of typical form, the finish of the blade is crude and 2.7 mm in greatest thickness.

More recently, mass tourism has created a market for exotic, flashy and inexpensive examples of arms and armour as souvenirs. These cheap, crude examples of tourist grade, made to be sold inexpensively to non-discerning and unknowledgeable customers, and the presently proliferating range of semi-industrially made edged weapons of ethnic and fantasy styles entirely unrelated to the source of manufacture (encompassing most of what you will see offered commercially on the web!) are best avoided, except perhaps, as inexpensive souvenirs or wall hangers, respectively.

How do I find quality ethnographic arms and armour?

With only a few exceptions, such as Japanese swords whose prices had increased a few decades earlier, ethnographic edged weapons remained quite cheap and plentiful up until about a decade or two ago. Unfortunately for aspiring collectors, bargains have become quite rare and the challenge today is to even find good quality at a reasonable price.

Fine examples brought home to colonizing countries as trophies of war or of more peaceful economic conquest and the purchases of early and discerning tourists (then infected with the Victorian era vogue for collecting) do continue to find their way out of attics and closets. In an increasingly mobile society, however, the duration of storage in the attic is more likely to be a decade than a century. The prospects for finding anything of interest by being the early-bird at garage sales are pretty slim as the wares will more likely be "that awful knife Uncle Bob brought back from his safari and gave us twenty years ago" or Bill's must-have "highlander" katana from the local mall of a decade ago and not grandfather's fantastic Moro kris from the Spanish American War era. As a general rule, most of what is seen today at general antique sales, estate auctions and flea markets is usually of very poor quality, even when as old as fifty years, although there always remains the hope of being the one to find a great antique awakening from its slumber. Too often, general antique dealers are aware of high prices for extraordinary items and consequently place the same expectations, out of ignorance, on the most mundane of examples. And if they did place a fantastic "sleeper" on the shelf, chances are that the "picker" of a specialist dealer will have spotted it and passed it along up the market "food chain" within a few days of its being set out in the shop. Not always, so hope may continue to spring forth, though success is an elusive long-shot. While there was once a good chance of a "solitary" discovery in the local shop or auction, rewarding diligent study and the prepared mind, today, brisk competition must be expected, in part because of the proliferation of very well-illustrated books and websites such as this one and its forums. For the old-time collectors now comes the realization that in our search of knowledge and the sharing thereof we have polluted our own source wells beyond recovery.

Moving another step up the "food chain," ordinary gun shows, arms fairs and militaria dealers remain fertile ground for the hunt, though with diminishing prospects for an inexpensive "eureka." Similarly on-line auctions and classified ads may still provide bargains. A decade ago, when on-line auctions were a novelty, there was a fantastic window of opportunity as specialized items which were recognized as by their owners as quality, but which had found no local market, were offered to the new wider market. The seller often got better than a good wholesale price and the buyer got the other split in the bargain. Sometimes a poorly described but adequately illustrated lot was indeed a "eureka" and the buyer found a treasure for pennies on the dollar. "Sleepers" do still awaken on the on-line auctions, but now well over ninety percent of offerings are newly made wall hangers, outright fakes or items with serious condition and or degree of restoration issues. Caveat emptor!

Further up the "food chain," chances of finding quality are greatly improved, but with similarly reduced chances of finding a bargain, in minor specialty auctions as well as being lumped together in grouped wholesale lots in the major auctions. The new collector, especially, needs to realize that the auction format provides neither protection from overpaying or sure safety from clever fakes or items with serious condition-restoration issues. Careful inspection of the offerings before the sale by the collector or by a qualified and trustworthy agent is essential. As prices for ethnographic arms and armour have increased, so have the motives for forgery and deceit. While a well publicized and attended auction may be the best place to set the price for extraordinary items of great rarity, auctions are also where dealers and collectors anonymously dump their duds and other mistakes. Careful review of auction terms of sale often reveals little or no guarantee or possibility of recourse when faults are discovered after the hammer falls.

The best examples will turn up at both specialty dealers and in the major auctions, but are likely to cost full retail price in these venues. The beginning serious collector is probably best advised to cultivate a relationship with a specialty dealer who has expertise in the specific area of interest and who will regard protection of his professional reputation as being of more worth than suffering a loss from not bickering about honoring a perceived guarantee.

Counterintuitively, travel to the places of origin of ethnographic arms and armour in order to collect is very likely to be entirely unproductive, although trips to examine local museums and the setting may be most enjoyable and informative. While examples obviously remain in their respective countries of origin, ironically, especially for antiques, fine examples may be much harder to locate as well as significantly more expensive and, additionally, may now be subject to various export restrictions or include components, such as ivory, subject to stringent regulation.

The 1998 version of this page included "though they are usually no longer the bargains they were even a decade ago, the prices of these items today will almost certainly seem very cheap in a few decades;" a decade later that has proven prophetic. While a beginning collector may wish that we are in an ethnographic arms and armour market "bubble," it is more likely that, with increasing knowledge, the appeal for these objects, often among the finest material produce left of vanishing cultures, will only grow. Economic development is bringing wealth to the descendants of many of the cultures who made these objects and with that comes their ability to enter the market and reclaim this vestige of their ethnic identity and cultural heritage. Or, the market could collapse as short-sighted, ignorant lawmakers will employ their typical lazy short-cut approach and decide they must declare us unfree in order to protect us from ourselves and therefore forbid the possession of something which could, gasp, be used as a weapon...

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Copyright © 1998, 2008,2010 by Lee A. Jones