A Short Discourse on Tansu Value / by Shibui

Our customers often ask, “What determines the value of a tansu?”
Our answer is that value is determined by many factors. Here we can only briefly address what we see as the most important factors. For those of you seeking an explanation in greater depth, at the end of this newsletter we have listed references for further reading.
Origination: Based on accounting books from the 19th Century, we know that tansu made by the same tansu makers could vary in cost as much as 400%. This difference was due to variations at the time the tansu was made. A standard package of configuration, woods, hardware and finish would cost the least, while customization would increase the cost. The original cost of these tansu was much higher than their cost today. Old account books and receipts found in some tansu show that at the time they were made they could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $90,000 when adjusted to today’s dollar.
Uniqueness: The rarity and romance of an object also are factors in its value Clothing chests are more common than sea chests, because everyone had clothes but not everyone had a boat. The romance behind a samurai’s sword chest or a geisha’s clothing chest creates additional value along with the limited supply while a much larger common kitchen cupboard will often cost less despite its size and beauty.
Time: The majority of tansu we value today were made during the Meiji era. It was a time of tremendous economic expansion and spending in a pre industrial system. The sumptuary laws of the Edo period were repealed and the merchants began to buy all of the things they were not allowed during the Edo period. With the new expensive acquisitions came the need for a good storage chest and another opportunity to show ones wealth with great displays of hand forged iron.
Hardware: Hand forged iron hardware was very expensive at the time tansu were made. Cast iron and softer metal hardware was less expensive. Custom lock plates made a tansu more expensive and unusual. The more work put into the detail of the hardware, the greater the cost. Iron hardware was a status symbol at the time tansu were made and it remains a factor today. The design, thickness and detailing (chiseled, chasing and repousse) all added to the original cost and to the value today.
Woods: Some woods, then as now, are more expensive than others. Matsu (pine) and sugi (cedar) were less expensive and easier to work with than keyaki (Japanese elm) and kuri (chestnut), which were more prized. The quality of the boards themselves also contributed to the cost. Burl or other attractively figured woods were more desirable and more expensive. The thickness of the boards is also a sign of quality and affected the cost then and now. Thin veneers similar to those used on Western furniture are unusual for Meiji era tansu, but they do exist and diminish the value of the piece.
Finish: Most tansu, but not all, are finished with some form of lacquer. It varies from opaque to transparent and was used to enhance the character as well as to waterproof the tansu. Lacquer is the reduced and hardened sap of the poison sumac. In its liquid form, it is difficult and dangerous to work with and is illegal to use in the U.S. This is important because if the lacquer on a piece is not in good shape, it will have to stay “as is” or the piece will need to be stripped and re-lacquered or refinished. Un-lacquered tansu are often “cleaned” or stripped of their patina in an effort to make them brighter for the designer market. This is also done to hide the replacement of boards as recreating the patina of the years is much more difficult than cleaning the whole tansu.
Patina: Has the effect of time, use and wear made the piece more or less beautiful? Is the patina original to the piece or has it been enhanced or diminished? In the past, patina has not been a very significant factor in the valuation of tansu, but it has become more so, and will be even more important in the future. Often the difference between a collector piece and a designer piece is the patina.
Restoration: When most tansu first come on the market, they are in need of some restoration. Some will need a lot; some only a little. Historically, the more a piece is restored, the less it is worth. How a piece is restored will also affect its value. Restorers who do not use traditional methods often repair and restore tansu to make them look and sell better without understanding that they are destroying the historical integrity of the piece. How much restoration is necessary and how it is done will make a large difference in the long-term value of the tansu.
Some typical restoration issues are:
Hardware: Missing or damaged hardware should be replaced with hardware from the proper region and period and should be of quality comparable to the original.
Wood damage: Warped, bug eaten or otherwise damaged wood should be replaced with the appropriate type and, if possible, antiquity of wood.
Finish: A damaged lacquer finish may be removed and replaced with new lacquer in Japan or other appropriate finishes in the U.S. There is an unfortunate trend today toward stripping off original finishes and destroying the character of the piece.
Joinery: Drawers and joints should be repaired in the same manner as the original was made, for example with traditional wooden pegs rather than modern wire nails.
Finally, value carries a personal component as well. Do you like the piece? In my own collection are pieces with obvious imperfections and idiosyncrasies; however, there is always some compelling detail or details, which continue to draw me to these pieces despite their imperfections.
For a prospective buyer, my advice is: Ask questions. Deal with established and reputable sellers who know these pieces and will stand behind them.
References:
Japanese Cabinetry: The Art and Craft of Tansu, Gibbs Smith publisher
Daruma magazine #18
Japanese Antique Chests by Kazuko Koizumi (publisher unknown)
Traditional Japanese Furniture, Kodansha publisher
Tansu, Weatherhill publisher