Tansu values vary greatly from piece to piece. Below are some of the considerations taken into account.
Supply and demand
Not everyone had a ship but everyone had clothes, so there were several thousand more clothing chests produced than ships chests. Greater supply drives prices down. The type and town and both contribute to the overall supply. For example, Kanto (Tokyo) produced more clothing chests than other areas, like Matsumoto, and are far more common and less expensive.
The majority of tansu we see 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 The sumptuary laws of the Edo period were repealed, and the merchants began to buy things that were prohibited during the Edo period. With new expensive kimono came the need for a good storage chest, and another opportunity to show ones wealth. The Meiji era is a cross roads.
Based on accounting books from the 19th century we know that a clothing tansu made by the same tansu makers could vary as much as 400%. The difference in cost was based on variations at the time of manufacture. A standard package of configuration, woods and finish would be the lowest cost; any variation on this would increase the cost. The original value was much higher than the value today. The old account books and receipts found with some tansu show that at the time of manufacture tansu could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $90,000 when adjusted for today’s dollar. Many of the same factors at the time of manufacture are still important in the valuation of the tansu today.
Hand forged iron hardware was very expensive, and cast iron hardware was less so. Custom lock plates made a chest more expensive and unusual. Iron hardware was a status symbol at the time tansu were made, and today it also makes many tansu more distinctive than others. The design, thickness and detailing (chiseled, chasing and repousse) all added to the cost.
Some woods are more expensive than others. Matsu (pine) and Sugi (cedar) were less expensive and easy to work with while Keyaki (Japanese elm) and Kuri (chestnut) were more prized. The quality of the boards themselves also contributed to the cost. Burl or other nicely figured woods were more expensive and generally considered more beautiful. The thickness of the boards themselves is also a sign of quality and affects the value today. Veneers are unusual for Meiji era tansu, but they do exist and are usually worth less than pieces that are solid wood.
Most tansu are finished with some form of lacquer, varying from opaque to transparent. Lacquer was used to enhance the character, and waterproof the chest. Lacquer is the reduced and hardened sap of the Lac tree similar to Poison Sumac. In its liquid form it is difficult and dangerous to work with and illegal to use in the U.S. This is important because if the lacquer is not in good shape at the time the tansu is found it will either remain so in the future or need to be stripped and re-lacquered or refinished.
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. This has not been a large factor in the valuation of tansu in the past, but it will become increasingly important in the future.
Most tansu when first brought out of a Kura (storehouse) or home are in need of some restoration. How much restoration is necessary and how it is done will make a large difference in the long-term value. The more something is restored the less it is worth historically. People in Japan and the U.S. who do not use traditional methods often repair tansu can cause irreparable harm to the piece. Tansu can be found with problems; some cosmetic and some structural which if not properly dealt with will affect the value. Missing hardware may or may not be replaced with hardware from the right time and region and quality. Warped, bug eaten or otherwise damaged woods may be replaced with new or period wood or even a different species. The finish may be removed and replaced with new lacquer in Japan or other finishes in the U.S. or left stripped of all its original finish and character. The drawers and joints may be repaired with traditional wooden pegs or with modern wire nails.
When valuing a tansu many factors need to be taken into consideration. How original is the piece? How beautiful is the piece? How unusual is the piece? How well made is the piece? How well restored is the piece? How useful is the piece to me? All of these affect the value for me. Not all of them may be worth paying for to you. What collectors want, and what designers want are different. Without knowing what you want it is difficult to know if what I value holds the same value for you or others. Of course, we also have to take into account where and from whom the pieces is purchased. Ask the questions and be satisfied with the answers before you buy anywhere. I hope this is helpful and if you have further questions please feel free to ask.
References for More Information
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, by Kazuko Koizumi, Kodansha Publisher
Tansu, by Ty Hineken, Weatherhill Publisher