Some months ago I was talking about the pitfals of removing signatures in this post. I have pretty much pointed out why it is important to check, double-check, and triple-check before even thinking about having a mei removed so this time I want to introduce a different, recent and documented example of why signatures were removed, and thanks Darcy for bringing that very issue to my attention.
It is about a sunnobi-tantô by the famous Sôshû master Hiromitsu (広光). Today, there are roughly 20 dated works of this smiths extant that have been authentificated. Now one of these works, a tantô signed “Sagami no Kuni-jûnin Hiromitsu” (相模国住人広光) and dated “Enbun sannen jûchigatsu hi” (延文三年十一月日, “a day in the eleventh month Enbun three ”) was designatged as a jûyô-bijutsuhin on December 18 1935 (see picture 1). Back then, it was owned by Count Sakai Tadatae (酒井忠克, 1883-1939), the grandson of the last Sakai daimyô of the Obama fief of Wakasa province.
Picture 1: jûyô-bijutsuhin, sunnobi-tantô, original mei, nagasa 31.95 cm, sori 0.55 cm, hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune
So far, so good. 26 years later, in November 1961, this very sunnobi-tantô was stolen in Niigata City and for some reason, probably someone panicking, realizing how high the recognition factor of a fully signed and dated Hiromitsu is (let alone that it is a jûyô-bijutsuhin), had the complete mei removed. I mean, unlike the above linked Enju blade, this is not a case where someone doubted the authenticity of a mei and had it removed because he was going for papers. No, this mei was removed because someone didn’t want to be connected to the theft. “Fortunately,” the jûyô-bijutsuhin designation included recording the blade and so, although we don’t know when and by whom, the original signature was “preserved” via a shu-mei. The shu-mei was quite carefully done, i.e. following the very interpretation of the original mei. So we have now one of those cases where we find ourselves in the “greyzone” of things happening in the past but still knowing why a certain shu-mei was done (and having records of the original mei as oshigata as seen in picture 1), but imagine 50 more years down the road. Who knows then about all that context and, provided the blade is still extant, many people will then say: “Well, its just a shu-mei. You can put anything on a tang like that…”
Anyway, the blade is now designated as a tokubetsu-jûyô (in 2008, it got jûyô the year before, with the shu-mei already on, so the shu-mei must have been added some time in between) and luckily, that context of the theft is recorded in the jûyô-tôken nado zufu explanation.
Picture 2: tokubetsu-jûyô, sunnobi-tantô, shu-mei