Masamune, Tbilisi and Geniuses

The question that does not escape any kind of collecting is that of Masters and Masterpieces. What kind of work is recognized as a Masterpiece, who were the Masters who created it, and whether their other creations can be readily identified, are the kind of subjects that get revisited every generation or so, with often conflicting answers. But studying how these are/were resolved in different parts of the World and in different times can be by itself very revealing.

In terms of Caucasian artifacts our generation was lucky to stand at the very beginning of serious understanding of this tradition, and thus we had an opportunity to observe first hand how perception of these issues evolves.

Let us take the case of Geurk Eliarov (Elizarov, Eliazarov, Elizarashvili etc.), who is currently being slowly accepted as “the best Caucasian swordmaker who ever lived”, and start with the hard facts:

  1. There are at least three people related to this body of work – Geurk, Kakhraman, and Eprem. Details of relationship between the three are not completely certain, but there is some evidence suggesting that Kakhraman is the son and heir, and Eprem could be Geurk’s brother. Their signatures tend to appear on later work, so it is possible that before they worked for Geurk and did not sign their pieces. There are also late (1840s) examples signed Geurk Eliazarov in an unusually simple or outright primitive manner, which might be imitations by others, or attempts by Kakhraman (?) to benefit from the famous name.
  2. Aside from his work in wootz (bulat), no example of Geurk work is substantially different from the top quality contemporary examples, signed by Ali, Ahmed or other top notch early 19th century Tbilisi craftsmen. Carvings and gilding are very apparently done by the same hand(s) on all of them, so it was probably the work of specialized metal carvers rather than swordsmiths themselves. If the signatures are covered on typical period Tbilisi kindjals signed Ali and Geurk, no one is capable to tell which is which.
  3. Among the work in bulat there are about 3 examples that are stunning and substantially above of much, if not all, of period work in this material. They can be easily identified as Geurk’s work if unsigned (but they are signed), and were apparently the objects that made him famous. Among other blades in wootz, there is a variety of styles and qualities, some with identifiable features, and some without.

Now let me insert here a few conjectures of mine, which I think can explain how from this information we arrive to a very different, current state of “Geurk scholarship”. First, 95% of collectors, museum workers and especially dealers are not great artists themselves, and they are not families of great artists. I would add that  they also have no substantial combat experience, nor do they come from outstanding military families, so their perception of weapons’ manufacturing and war are frankly speaking equally bizarre, but that’s a subject of yet another article. With the Art however, what they are looking for, are primarily two things – increased valuation and simplicity. Both are achievable if everybody agrees that there was a true Genius X, and all of his works are Masterpieces. Then the question is simply whether the work in question is by X, and then its great, or its not, and then it is average. Now a real artist always knows well his personal failures, bad days, mistakes to learn from etc., and in making swords it even gets more complicated as there are many factors that are truly random and beyond any craftsmen’s control. But again, dealers are not artists, so Genius signature/attribution=Masterpiece is the law by which they operate.

So with Geurk we have a guy who worked for the Russian Emperor (Russian dealers like that), was probably Armenian (Armenian museum workers love that), and registered as Georgian and lived in Tbilisi (Georgian collectors are on board as well). Ali, Ahmed and the rest of the bunch belonged to some unknown community of swordsmiths with Muslim names. They produced quite a lot of work, probably also in Tbilisi, but there are no archival records of them, and their ethnicity is unknown. So nobody claims them as “genius ancestors” or even simply basically likes them. If all their work (with 100% period provenance) would just disappear one day, leaving us with the Genius Geurk, would it not be better? Well, turns out it is actually not that hard to accomplish.

First, starting with 2010 or so all unsigned work in the same general style began to be attributed by “experts” as either “Geurk Eliazarov, usigned” or “Geurk school, unsigned”. Frankly, there are not that many (1?) examples of Geurk’s work with period provenance which are unsigned, and overall compared to all of his contemporaries combined he (even despite the fact that it was probably Geurk+family rather than one person) did not make that many pieces. But as soon as unsigned work began to be attributed as “Geurk”, the numbers quickly skyrocketed – if this piece is “Geurk”, then why not this one?

Then, and that’s what we see right now, assault is mounted on existing pieces signed by Ali, Ahmed and others. It is just beginning in “expert” publications right now, but the trend is already clear. Despite the fact that among museum examples with provenance these signatures dominate in numbers over Geurk’s, they are being reinterpreted now as:

a. Geurk signed Ali when he was young/old/lived abroad. There is a deep meaning behind it, which we don’t know.

b. Ali is a later signature, which for some bizarre reason was put there in 19th century. If you have a kindjal thus signed, carefully scratch it off with a nail, and it will be accepted as Geurk’s masterpiece (and 5x times more valuable!).

c. Ali and Ahmed were junior apprentices of Grandmaster Geurk. Their signatures are important, but it is really Geurk’s work which for some reason was signed by apprentices. It was probably intended for junior clients.

d. It is not really Ahmed or Mohammed, but some rare abbreviation of “Geurk the greatest” or something else. The complexity of Arabic writing does allow in some cases for such interpretations.

So within the next 30 years it is quite likely that any high quality Tbilisi kindjal from the early 19th century will be attributed to Geurk by default, while all second class work will be delegated to “period Tbilisi school”. Who is to oppose it – collectors will be happy to know they have the work of Grandmaster who produced only Masterpieces, and a few people trying to study the subject seriously will be saved from all the headache associated with these weird Tbilisi Muslims.

Related point – when we deal with East Asian, and particularly Japanese crafts, we need to realize that the practice of collecting those is centuries older than similar Europe customs. The “reinterpretation” which we see only beginning in case of Caucasus, was going on in Japan for many generations. As soon as Masamune was (somewhat suddenly) declared the greatest of the greatest in 16th-17th centuries by a narrow circle of collectors and appraisers, despite a very suspicious, if not outright exceptional, lack of his work with truly old provenance, and despite extreme rarity of signed period(?) pieces, reattributing much of serious early Soshu work to him was just a matter of time. One can expect that signatures were filed off, swords were altogether shortened, and more and more of higher class work was becoming the “newly discovered Masterpiece of Masamune”. A self-fulfilling prophecy would at the same time attribute lower quality period work signed Masamune as “fake”, while grouping together better examples, or more famous ones, or even simply the ones with more influential owners, as “Masamune’s masterpieces”.

And when today we are told – “yes, this piece looks like the correct period style signature, but the quality is off, so let’s file it away and it will be a good Shizu Kaneuji/Shintogo Yukimitsu or maybe even Go Yoshihiro”, it might quite be that we are filing off one of the last real signatures of Masamune. Without blades with the true 14th century provenance – we really don’t know.