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Old 16th June 2007, 01:38 PM   #1
Mark
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Default Thai "katana"

I recently visited the Asian Arms collection of the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History, and had the rare opportunity to examine a daab that was presented to President Franklin Pierce (President 1853-1857) by King Mongkut (Rama IV) of Siam. It has been on loan to the Museum of American History for many years, but was returned to the Natural History Museum's archive during renovations at the American History Museum.








The catalog entry states:
Quote:
FROM CARD: "THERE IS A SIMILAR, BUT MORE ELABORATE SWORD OF THIS TYPE PRESENTED BY THE SAME KING TO PRES. JAMES BUCHANAN IN 1861 AND THANKED FOR BY PRES. AB. LINCOLN, WHICH WAS RETAINED BY THE STATE DEPT. AND LATER DEPOSITED IN THE COLLECTIONS OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, WHERE IT NOW IS. -MARCH 1969. THE DESCRIPTION IN THAT LATER GIFT FITS THE GENERAL TYPE OF THIS SPECIMEN: "AN IRON SWORD MANUFACTURED IN SIAM AFTER THE FASHION OF THE FAMED JAPANESE SWORDS, DONE IN BLACK AND GOLD NIELLO.." THE SPECIMEN AS CORRECTLY IDENTIFIED IN THE MUSEUM IN APRIL 1969 WAS AS FOLLOWS: A HEAVILY DAMASCENED BLADE OF IRON WITH THE DAMASCENED PATTERN IN PROMINANT RELIEF. SINGLE EDGED, SLIGHTLY BACK CURVED WITH A FAIRLY BROAD POINT. HANDLE IS OF TWO PIECES OF WOOD COMPLETELY COVERED WITH PUNCTATE SHEET BRASS (IN IMITATION OF THE RAY SKIN ON THE JAP. SPECIMENS). ON TOP OF THIS ARE THE TWO SMALL CAST DECORATIVE ORNAMENTS BOUND DOWN BY THE ALMOST COMPLETE WRAPPING IN BLACK AND WHITE BRAIDED SILK TAPE, WHICH ALSO HOLDS ON THE GILDED SILVER BUTT CAP. AT THE INNER END IS A BAND OF THE SAME METAL AS IS THE HEAVY GUARD (TSUBA) WITH INCISED FLORAL DESIGNS. (THESE DESIGNS WERE ORIGINALLY FILLED IN WITH BLACK NIELLO ENAMEL BUT NOW ONLY FAINT TRACES NOW REMAIN BECAUSE SOMEONE IN THE PAST WITHOUT ANY KNOWLEDGE REMOVED ALL THE ENAMEL -- ROBERT ELDER) tHE SCABBARD IS A SINGLE PIECE OF HOLLOWED OUT WOOD (INSTEAD OF TWO PIECES AS IN THE JAPANESE ONES) IN NATURAL COLOR, AND HAVING THE SAME GUILDED SILVER TIP AND REAR BAND. CALLED "KEW" WOOD.
FROM CARD: WHEN THIS WAS ORIGINALLY ENTERED IN THE ANTHROPOLOGY CAT. BOOK IT WAS CALLED A PART OF THE MATTHEW PERRY COLLECTION INCORRECTLY. ONLY EXAMINATION OF THE RECATALOGING REVEALED CORRECT IDENTIFICATION. INVENTORIED 1968.
Nihon-to became very popular among the upper class in Siam, so much so that the King issued a royal edict stating that if nihon-to were wore, they must have traditional Siamese design elements. As a consequence, you now find nihon-to with koshiri which overall resemble Japanese mounts, but on closer examination follow a Siamese tradition. The present sword is particularly unusual in that the blade is in the style of a nihon-to, but is Siamese-made, using a forging technique that is used in Malaysia & Indonesia to make keris blades. As for the fittings, the saya is a single piece (without seams), meaning it was drilled out and carved to shape. Rather than plum blossoms or chrysanthemum, there is a lotus motif. The shagreen is actually metal, textured to resemble shagreen. The habaki consists of straps wrapped at the base of the blade, rather than a collar set over the base and tang. There is only one seppa. The kurikata is very small, almost a button. The sayajiri is much narrower and more rounded than what is typical in a nihon-to. The tsuba has a vestigial ana, even though there are no scabbard accessories (kogai, wari-kogai, etc.). A truly unique sword.

Last edited by Mark; 10th September 2007 at 04:07 PM.
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Old 17th June 2007, 07:58 AM   #2
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Amazing. Thank you.
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Old 17th June 2007, 10:25 AM   #3
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Under any other circumstances, I would've assumed that this sword was a modern Chinese fake.

But as long as the documentation can be verified, I suppose it must be authentic. A fitting gift for President Pierce, I suppose.
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Old 18th June 2007, 04:18 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Joe
Under any other circumstances, I would've assumed that this sword was a modern Chinese fake.

But as long as the documentation can be verified, I suppose it must be authentic. A fitting gift for President Pierce, I suppose.
You sure are right that it matches recent fakes in the pattern weld, etch, and the look of the tip. Franklin Pierce, (a distant relative) is not well regarded by historians so it was indeed a fitting gift.
Josh
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Old 18th June 2007, 04:19 PM   #5
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Thanks, Mark!
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Old 18th June 2007, 06:32 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Joe
Under any other circumstances, I would've assumed that this sword was a modern Chinese fake.

But as long as the documentation can be verified, I suppose it must be authentic. A fitting gift for President Pierce, I suppose.
I'm with you Joe.
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Old 20th June 2007, 06:28 PM   #7
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The provenance is well-documented. Presidential gifts usually are. It was not recognized by the museum as what it was until 1969, but once identified for what it was, the documentation/provenance was good.

The blade really is exquisite, however the fittings are in my opinion sub-standard in their execution. Perhaps King Mongkut did not think much of Pres. Pierce, either. The workmanship on the metal fittings is rather rough, and do not have a good "fit and finish" with the blade and the scabbard. The scabbard in a couple of places has rough cut marks, for example around the notch cut for the kurikata, and where the chape joins the wood of the scabbard.

Now I want to see what I can do in order to see the one in the National Archives.

Last edited by Mark; 20th June 2007 at 11:18 PM.
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Old 20th June 2007, 07:22 PM   #8
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Hi Mark,
Thank you so much for posting this and for the historical detail explaining the presence of Japanese swords in Siam. I have heard of the influences of Japanese swords and decoration techniques though primarily trade and diplomatic interaction in the East Indies in 18th century, as well as degree of such influence in swords of Vietnam. I recall in one reference (which I still question but cannot recall details) which showed what appeared a katana and captioned as from India with an odd name. While the India assessment was apparantly incorrect, the sword shown must have been of this group.

It has always been fascinating to me when a weapon as distinctly indiginous as the Japanese katana appears in geographically distant and inconsistant cultural spheres. It seems that even in colonial New England one inventory lists a Japanese sword, and then there is of course the photo of Red Cloud at the end of the 19th century after the 'Indian Wars' with a katana mounted behind him on his wall.

All the best,
Jim
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Old 20th June 2007, 07:37 PM   #9
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I have a problem with this sword. If the they wanted to copy a Japanese katana why would they etch the blade so dark or at all? Mark is there any examples of Burmese or Siamese swords being etched in this way? The blade seems more Indonesian to me as far as etching and pamor is concerned. Sorry but it just does not strike me as old or Siamese. The overall fit and finish is not that good. I would think if you were going to give a gift to a President or king of another country it would be of finer quality than what is pictured.

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Old 20th June 2007, 08:25 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LOUIEBLADES
I have a problem with this sword. If the they wanted to copy a Japanese katana why would they etch the blade so dark or at all? Mark is there any examples of Burmese or Siamese swords being etched in this way? The blade seems more Indonesian to me as far as etching and pamor is concerned. Sorry but it just does not strike me as old or Siamese. The overall fit and finish is not that good. I would think if you were going to give a gift to a President or king of another country it would be of finer quality than what is pictured.

Lew
The etch is highly unusual for Thai or Burmese swords, in my experience, Lew.
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Old 21st June 2007, 12:33 AM   #11
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I’m not sure what you mean by “problem,” Lew. If you mean that the sword does not seem genuine, the only answer I can give is to state again that the provenance is unquestioned. I completely agree that the fittings are surprisingly poor, especially for a presidential gift, but given the clear provenance, we just have to accept that oddity.

As I noted before, the blade does appear to have been made using the Malaysian/Indonesian smithing traditions normally used for keris. I am not by any means an expert in the art of keris bladesmithing, but examining the blade in detail showed it to be very well-made from the point of view of geometry (even taper, crisp lines, even surfaces, etc.). I did not see any forging flaws, cracks, or other irregularities (other than the patterns in the steel itself).

Why would a Siamese blade be made to look like a katana, but done using layered & etched pamor? I have explained the reason for the katana shape - Japanese swords were very much in vogue in Siam, and Siamese smiths often imitated them in basic form. I did not mean to imply that the Siamese copied (or tried to copy) Japanese swords in an exact way, but rather that Japanese swords served as a stylistic inspiration for Thai interpretations of the style. There are many examples of katana, or katana-like, blades mounted in a uniquely Thai style. Some examples are in this thread (photos from Punjabhan, "Silverware in Thailand," Rengrom Publishing, Bangkok (1991) ISBN 9748869563); the one in the fifth photo appears to be etched, but it is hard to be sure from the small photos. Other examples are seen in Michael Nguyen's photos of the National Museum in Bangkok.

I have to speculate as to why the blade was done in pamor, but there are several facts which, I think, makes speculation possible. First, the use of pamor would have been well-known in Siam just by virtue of the proximity to Malaysia & cultural and trade contacts with Islandic Southeast Asia (and remember that southern Thailand comprises a part of the Malay Peninsula even today, as it did in the past). Second, keris in fact were common as a part of Siamese court attire, and given by the King as a sign of his favor (see de la Laubere, "A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam" (1693), pages 100 & 168), making it reasonable to conclude that the esthetics of pamor where appreciated in Thailand. Third, other edged weapons in the Malaysian tradition were also known and used, for example the badik (see, for example, Dan Wilke's photos from the Grand Palace in Bangkok. From these it is not very unreasonable to think that a Thai bladesmith would have combined the popular katana blade form with the beauty of pamor, and come up with a sword such as this one. Etching the blade would not be at all unusual in this circumstance. The Thai, like the rest of the dha-using people of SEA, were (and still are) endlessly creative in making and decorating their swords, and there is a bewildering variety of forms and styles (including katana-like swords made according to Thai bladesmithing traditions, and dha/daab clearly made using Japanese swordmaking traditions such as folded steel and the use of refractory clay to selectively harden the edge – see this one, for example). This appears to be just one more.
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Old 21st June 2007, 02:15 AM   #12
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I completely agree that the fittings are surprisingly poor, especially for a presidential gift, but given the clear provenance, we just have to accept that oddity. Sorry Mark but I have to play the devil's advocate here.


Mark as you say this sword is documented but to me it still looks strange there is no real patina on the scabbard considering it's 160 yrs old. I do not find it attractive or well made compared to other higher end swords from that region of course this is my personal opinion. Is there a photo of the sword with President Franklin Pierce receiving it? How did the museum verify it's authenticity?

The Doubting Thomas

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Old 21st June 2007, 02:42 AM   #13
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I do not doubt the fact that the Museum provenanced the sword.
But...
Lew has a point: presidential gifts are , as a rule, lavish and overdecorated, often to the point of being garish. This one is cheap, cheap, cheap!
It is carelessly executed, with the scabbard made of plain wood, and with a primitive handle with a new-looking fabric( rayon? ). What was going on? Couldn't they scramble for a touch of ivory? Rubies are dirt cheap there, and silver is also not that expensive. I saw dozens of swords in the Palace Museum in Bangkok that were orders of magnitude better and more lavish. Heck, Mark's Index has much better swords!
Presenting something like that to the President of the US is almost an insult, unless this sword has an intrinsic historical value. Anything of that nature mentioned in the museum papers?
Something is whispering in my ear that all is not well with this story.
The nastiest scenario that comes to mind is that somebody swiped the original sword for a Chinese "eximious yataghan of military affairs with a rosewood vagina" and nobody paid attention. This sword was in storage and travelled from museum to museum...Any pictures or documented detailed descriptions of this sword on arrival to the US?
Sorry, Mark....
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Old 21st June 2007, 02:54 AM   #14
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Well, not having personally examined the information in the National Archives, I can't really say with 100% certainty that the sword is what it is purported to be. However, every gift to a U.S. President should have been cataloged and inventoried, so I assume that the error in the Natural History Museum's records attributing it to the Matthew Perry collection was discovered by comparing the sword & its description to the National Archive records.

It is something that bears investigation. I would like to find the original records, just to get the full history of the thing. I want to track down the other sword referred to in the catalog entry, so perhaps I can find the original records on this one as well, and confirm or disprove the stated provenance. It would be interesting to learn the context of the gift, such as whether it was a single gift on some special occasion, or one of several things given at once. For example, there are a number of items in the Smithsonian's collection from Thailand that were given to the US government after an exposition marking the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

As for condition, patina would come from handling and exposure to the elements, but since it has been in either a drawer in a controlled climate or in a display case in a museum, I don't find it surprising that it is in so good a shape. Of course, there is no telling what color the wood of the scabbard was originally, so the darkish orange color it is now actually could be the result of some amount of patination. The blade is, in my opinion, quite well-made, so it is not complete trash. The fittings pass the "squint test," as they don't look bad from a distance (I never noticed the flaws on the several occasions I observed it on display at the Museum of American History). Its just up close that you see the shoddy workmanship, so maybe it was deemed adequate for a display/presentation piece.

Something else that just occurred to me is that the bad cleaning/"restoration" of the sword that removed the enamel, referred to in the catalog, might have screwed things up. If the fittings were made to be covered in enamel, they might not have been made so finely. The scabbard might even have been stripped. It sounds from the catalog entry that it was pretty badly treated.
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Old 22nd June 2007, 03:01 PM   #15
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Mark, first of all, I would like to pay my sincerely thanks to you for sharing such a rare photo (at least, for Thai people like us).

Indeed, King Rama IV has order a number (which is unknown to us) of Kris-method-Japanese-style-dahb. One of them was showed at EXPO in UK. We just recognized that some of them made their way to US (many thanks, Mark).

Etching 's not common for ordinary dahb. But there 's a number of dahb were made with Kris/Keris method like this (http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showthread.php?t=4046)

For partination, I guess that the original wood might be in genus of Ervatamia sp. or other light-color wood.

For example (newly made e-hnep knife)


Even well patinated oiled wood will be very light in color.
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Old 23rd June 2007, 12:15 PM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
Thank you so much for posting this and for the historical detail explaining the presence of Japanese swords in Siam. I have heard of the influences of Japanese swords and decoration techniques though primarily trade and diplomatic interaction in the East Indies in 18th century,
King of Siam had as his personal guards Samurai from Japan that were hired
as mercenaries. They proved to be extremely efficient and reliable.
They helped to settle a riot. The japanese sword was exported to Siam too.
Both things were earlier then '800

If interested take a look here :

http://www.e-budo.com/forum/archive/...hp/t-8639.html

Scroll down a little and you'll find some interesting inputs.

The sword in question seems to fit the swords inspired to japanese
design, in XIX c. even if I can't say anything about the historical
accuracy as a present to the President. Seems quiet poor to me too...

What makes me wonder is the Tsukamaki (wrapping of handle).
Seems a japanese style. Too japanese, so possibly a fake or later
work.

Last edited by tsubame1; 23rd June 2007 at 12:33 PM.
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Old 23rd June 2007, 01:10 PM   #17
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I agree if Mark had not provenanced this I would have ignored it as a fake(and even refused to sit with him at our next Timonium luch!! ), but there seems to be enough evidence here...and just enough oddity to it...to back up the story. I think what to us may seem 'tacky' or crude(fittings, etc.) may have seemed exotic and rare to the Siamese....with that it mind it makes perfect since to me that from their perspective they were sending the President a rare and exotic gift.

The lack of patina here does not really bother me, afterall, this was probably accepted, cataloged, and stowed away, and I am betting it was actually handled very few times...probably more by museum folks than in the 19 Cent.

The thing that I find so fascinating and appealing about it is....what I love about that entire SE Asian region weapons-wise.... and that is the clear fusion of so many different cultures. In this case it may not have produced the most beautiful product, but just the attempt I find interesting.
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Old 27th March 2014, 01:47 AM   #18
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To kick up the dust from an old thread. I'm attaching a quote from a letter from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce in which he states that one of his gifts is "The sword or dagger (made of mixed steels of different colors) mounted in its case of the Kiew wood on silver richly gilt."

I can only say the King of Siam's English and penmanship is impeccable and that one would be so lucky to have friend like that...

Quite a nice sword.
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Old 27th March 2014, 04:24 PM   #19
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I think this is marvelous! The blade is clearly forged in the Peninsular tradition...given that it came from Thailand that suggests Pattani or thereabouts. The katana style blade came to be popular among Peninsular Malays in the 19th century, probably through contact with Japanese merceneries. They are call pedang jenawi traditionally although many folks today call them "pedang samurai". They're unusual and mostly of utilitarian quality. I recall there is a thread somewhere on this site that deals with them...do a little digging.

Clearly the piece is "handicraft" quality but I can assure you, experience has taught me that official gifts are often far less worthy. A very interesting piece with a most engaging story behind it...thanks for sharing!
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Old 27th March 2014, 04:54 PM   #20
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Nice to see this old thread come back to life again. Quite an interesting thing.
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Old 21st October 2016, 03:59 AM   #21
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Pedang Jenawi with '' Pamor ''
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Old 21st October 2016, 01:45 PM   #22
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With or without provenance, this is exactly what it is: a very poor quality and purely decorative attempt to copy a Japanese Katana. In other words, A FAKE. I even doubt that it can hold an edge as it is quite obvious from the photos the "edge" is about 2 mm thick...

Moreover, I doubt even the origin. While it appears to be well documented, it wouldn't be unfathomable that at a certain point in time the original sword was replaced with this pathetic attempt of a sword while the pedigree remained attached from the previous one, like Ariel suggested.

However, even if it were the original one, would the simple fact that it was presented as a gift to a president make it more valuable?! I personally don't think so. Only maybe from a historical perspective.

Dubito, ergo cogito!

PS: It wouldn't be for the first time when a museum is dead wrong about something.

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Old 21st October 2016, 08:03 PM   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mariusgmioc

Moreover, I doubt even the origin. While it appears to be well documented, it wouldn't be unfathomable that at a certain point in time the original sword was replaced with this pathetic attempt of a sword while the pedigree remained attached from the previous one, like Ariel suggested.

My first thought was also of a swap-out by a bent curator/collector. There are few forces more irresistible than the madness which infects collectors. P.G.Wodehouse, for one, has documented this trait in several of his more enjoyable novels.
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Old 21st October 2016, 09:20 PM   #24
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The pamor also looks like that used by Paul Chen in his Japanese reproductions.
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