Albeit it small and possibly slowly shrinking (museum accessions outpacing deaccessions and new discoveries), a marketplace does exist for medieval swords and is mostly the province of a small number of specialist dealers and the major auction houses.
The majority of medieval swords exist in excavated condition, having been recovered from earth and under fresh water, and are often fragmentary remains, though the best preserved from underwater can remain in remarkably good condition. Almost all swords from the Migration Period and Viking Age are in excavated condition. An average of one or two such swords may be expected to appear in the auction houses each year, sometimes newly found but usually from a collection in dispersal, especially when several are sold together. Years may also pass when no such artifacts appear to be on offer, but this should not be construed to mean the market has ended, as the best collections are usually those of the elderly, whose heirs often may be expected to fully satisfy the most callous desires of the would-be future owner in rushing their inheritance to the saleroom. The best of such archaeological remains, when essentially of complete or nearly complete length, will currently achieve prices from about $5,000 to beyond $20,000, depending upon degree of preservation and extent and quality of remaining decoration, if any. This represents a substantial increase in prices from a decade or two ago, but prices then seemed outrageously high when compared with the prices quoted by Ewart Oakeshott in the Archaeology of Weapons (1960) from the 1940s and 1950s.
European swords from the time of the earliest crusades through the advent of the Renaissance also survive predominately in excavated condition, however, a growing percentage, as one moves through later and later styles, exist in fully serviceable condition, similar to the average condition expected of an American Civil War cavalry saber of the Nineteenth Century. These swords are those which survived hidden behind walls in buildings, stored in armories as curiosities or battle trophies, or hanging above the grave of a knight in a church (but rarely surviving in situ into the Twentieth Century). The scarcity of such weapons from the time of the crusades may be possibly explained by the slow evolution of sword forms in those times, with older weapons being used up by both combat and training. Except for a very few swords in European museums preserved as coronation regalia, the ancient provenance of those swords which survived because of a particular place in history, such as the sword used to martyr Becket and taken from Canterbury in the time of Henry VIII's rage against the church, has been irretrievably lost. A group of at least one hundred swords, predominately of the Fourteenth and early Fifteenth Century with inscriptions in Arabic placing them in the Mamluk's arsenal in Alexandria, Egypt is known, with the majority continuing to be preserved in Istanbul along with other trophies of the Ottoman Empire. At least a few dozen of these swords have been on the market in this Century, with several now in museums, and a few of this group of swords can be expected to come up for sale each decade, again realizing much higher prices (about $40,000) this decade than in the previous decade.
It is unlikely that significant numbers of previously unknown swords in non-excavated condition will continue to appear as those that could be wrested from their ancient resting places probably have been, and those that remain are appropriately protected by vigilant guardians. Unfortunately, the other source of mediæval swords in very good condition, those from reducing environments in the beds of lakes and rivers has also "dried up" as modern dredging technology can be expected to destroy any swords it encounters. Indeed, "new" swords must increasingly be regarded as likely to be just that as knowledge of styles and methods of manufacture spread to capable artisans whose works later fall into unscrupulous hands to acquire a little accelerated age.
It is interesting to speculate on the long term future of the collecting of medieval swords. Oakeshott's anecdotes about collecting in the 1940s through the 1970s describe a time when a person of truly middle class means could, with a little sacrifice and a lot of study, acquire fine medieval swords at prices tolerant of occasional mistakes. Today's prices and slowly diminishing supply preclude almost all of those having an interest from engaging in this market, and a large market now exists in reproductions and modern interpretations of medieval swords which a person of average means can afford. Also, though it is no consolation to the modern student of medieval swords, compared with many sectors of art and artifact collecting, medieval sword prices may be described as cheap, topping out just above $100,000, so prices will probably continue to climb as nervous investors diversify away from the stock market. But with few additional medieval swords in really good condition coming to market, and the best of those presently in private hands likely to join those in the great public collections over the next few generations, the game is soon likely to be over for the private ownership of these objects, once the most personal of possessions.
Fakes are the bane of collectors of almost anything. Whether you are a novice or a dealer with decades of experience, fakes come in two varieties: those which you can quickly recognize and dismiss and those which you can detect as fakes only after extensive examination, if at all. Your level of expertise only determines the proportions between harmless and dangerous, and the one certainty never to forget is that the latter category will never be null. Indeed, if one cannot be comfortable with the prospect that all serious, active collectors are likely to occasionally be deceived and buy fakes, that person should avoid the market all together. And while it is healthy to regard an occasional mistake as part of the cost of the activity and a sort of continuing initiation rite for collectors within a specialty, it is obviously still essential to do everything possible to minimize one's risk to such deceits, and the best way to do this is to examine as much genuine material as possible and also to try to learn from the mistakes of others. Unfortunately, this most valuable knowledge is unlikely to be learned in front of a CRT screen.
The cachet of antiquity, for example that a given Viking Age sword was actually in a ship at the side of a member of a raiding party a thousand years ago or that a knightly sword was beside a crusader, carries a big premium in the same manner as does a baseball used for the winning strike of the World Series and signed by the batter; the value being not so much for the item itself as for what it links to. Why else would one object have a hundred-fold or greater increment in value over a similar object of equivalent function. And it is the subjective nature of this value that makes excellent fakes so dangerous. The potential purchaser wants the item to be right and may be all too willing to rationalize legitimate concerns away. If the item is later discovered to be a deceit, the blow may be expected to be much worse than had the equivalent amount in cash of the price been lost in a wager or on the street, as the once proud owner may have lost a bit of assumed identity as well.
And while it is wise to approach any offering with measured skepticism, the potential purchaser of a sword offered at an arms fair or at auction is often presented with a time-limited decision with a deadline measured in minutes of whether to take the chance and buy it now or risk losing the chance forever to another purchaser. Under such pressure, mistakes are easy. Indeed there is wisdom in the phrase "too good to be true" when applied upon encountering an item of extreme rarity offered at a bargain price. The first and main line of defense must be knowledge and experience of the subject. The more genuine items you have seen and handled, the better of a judge you will be.
As long as interest in an area of collecting remains minimal and prices low, there may be insufficient profit motive to stimulate the production of fakes. Even so, items made by skilled craftsmen in archaic styles for themselves as study pieces or as academic exercises may later come upon the market in a newly distressed condition (which would be even more distressing to the maker, small consolation that it is). As objects become more costly, as is most emphatically the case with medieval swords, the incentive to forgery rises with its potential rewards. Can a perfect fake (in the sense of a perfect crime) be made? I would contend this probably actually happens far more often than any of us would care to admit, particularly those in the trade, and that, with spread of knowledge about styles and metallurgical composition, the proportion of really dangerous fake medieval swords will continue to rise, particularly as prices rise. Though comprehensively deceiving (perfect) fake medieval swords capable of defying all efforts at detection may not truly yet exist, rarely is such a perfect deceit actually needed to make its marketeer the desired profits, and merely adequate deceivers exist in abundance.
Indeed, as prices for excavated swords rise, the threat that reasonably good modern replicas will be badly abused and corroded in order to deceive the unwary must be kept in mind. Even if the corrosion reveals structural details of the blade consistent with medieval manufacture, some caution is still justified as the item could be a high end forgery that went wrong, though this may not be especially likely. Where corrosion obscures all details lies the greatest danger.
Theoretically, as some bladesmiths now reduce their own iron from naturally occurring ores, given a detailed knowledge of blade construction, trace element composition and metallographic data freely available from the scientific literature, I feel that there are several bladesmiths currently capable of producing spurious works that would likely stand up to intense analysis, with the only hope being that the forger made some mistake that the metallurgical scientist would be looking for, or that new unanticipated analytic tools evolve based upon features yet unexplored. I have seen reproduction helmets, honestly made and sold as such, with artificial aging which I could not discern from true age. Even the detail of aged textile fragments remaining along some rivets was convincing. As long as the artist used modern steel, metallurgical examination would reveal the truth. But what if the item were made to deceive a museum or a collector with a big purse and access to modern instrumental analysis? The extra investment by the faker in a Cromwellian (English Civil War) breastplate as the source for the sheet metal would provide a report of pre-Bessemer process iron, hot or cold worked as appropriate. While possible, such a level of accuracy in a fake is rarely necessary. How many suspect items are actually subjected to metallurgical examination, especially that requiring serious defacement of the object?
In the discussions above I have considered totally false fabrications, however these are not what are most likely to be encountered in the marketplace. Far more common are "enhanced" genuine objects. By "enhanced", I mean items with major lost components replaced by disguised new fabrications or mismatched with other old parts and genuine items with embellishments and engravings added in modern times. In their own way, these are much more despicable than total fabrications when they have permanently destroyed the integrity and context of the original item. (In this context, I do not wish to be mistaken as condemning legitimate restoration efforts undertaken to preserve or allow display of items.) A favorite source of blades for fake medieval swords are Sudanese kaskaras and Tuareg takoubas of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, and aspiring collectors are advised to familiarize themselves with the forms and markings characteristic of these blades.
Museum curators, and to a lesser extent the auction house experts, will frequently be criticized for being all too ready to consign an object to the category of a fake, particularly by dealers who will aver that they must back up their own judgment with their own money. This criticism is not always unjustified; I know of at least two unquestionably genuine medieval swords in the last two decades which were sold cheaply as fakes, both in major salesrooms, only to later be confirmed as important genuine swords remaining in remarkably good condition. Curators are said to live in such fear for their jobs for misspending public or institutional funds on "duds" that any suspicion leads to a denouncement. An expert opinion is just that, an opinion, however, the probability of being correct usually lies with the more experienced observer. The caution and objectivity usually shown by curators is more often correct than not, and once so damned, an object should be regarded thereafter with suspicion unless it is thoroughly vindicated by exhaustive study.
A last note on the subject of provenance: I had once written a trusted dealer concerning the possibility of acquiring one of the Fourteenth Century medieval swords bearing a dedicatory inscription to the Alexandria arsenal. His reply to me was that he was aware of two such swords on the market at that time (1991), of which he trusted the authenticity of neither. He then added that he could not recommend any such sword unless it had a proven provenance of at least 15 years. The critical word in the previous sentence is proven. This gentleman has definite standards and does the research to independently verify and corroborate the stories accompanying objects. Remember always, that a sheet of paper accompanying a suspect sword would be much more easily faked than the sword itself.
Probably the best advice that can be given to a beginning collector is to seek a reliable, trustworthy dealer. As with most advice freely given, implementation is much more difficult than pontification. If you intend to collect medieval swords you should probably establish a relationship with a high end specialist dealer. This means that you should expect to pay close to the current full retail price when you buy from him. Similarly, you should expect the full professional competence and experience of the dealer in insuring that you will not be sold fakes and that the defects in a particular offering will be clearly described to you. You will want a dealer who will stand by you if something you have bought turns out to be wrong, who values his reputation as a dealer above any profit he can make from you and who has the resources to make good if there is a problem.
A good dealer will not put unreasonable time pressures on you to decide on a purchase and will extend to you a reasonable amount of time to examine and research the item. You should not abuse this privilege by equivocating too long. Such a dealer usually has multiple clients interested in such items and if you are too exasperating to deal with, you risk not be offered the best items in the future. A really good dealer will also be confident enough to introduce you to other collectors and the best dealers will desire to assist you in developing your connoisseurship about the items which you collect. In many cases some of the finest collections are more the creations of a particularly talented dealer than of the collector who owns them.
Arms fairs are a good place to personally meet and audition several dealers in the course of a day; if you cannot attend, the dealer advertisements in a fair's catalogue, such as the catalog of the Park Lane Arms Fair held each February in London, may be a good guide as to who are the currently active dealers. Other collectors are probably the best source of references, but realize in asking someone interested in exactly the same era and quality of item as yourself that you are asking them to potentially forfeit desired new acquisitions to you and that they may wisely choose not to share the names of their best sources. The advice of a collector of similar but distinctly different things not in direct competition with your interests may be an excellent source as may be collectors who have recently retired from active acquisition. The latter may also ultimately serve as a direct source. Other dealers may be helpful, again it being best to ask those not in direct competition. Often, in this latter situation, the highest complement is to disparage the other dealer's high prices, and an average reference is a burst of gossip about fakes the other dealer has dealt.
With the caveat that a relationship with a dealer can very much be influenced by personalities and the degree of convergence of aesthetic tastes, here, without warranty, is a brief alphabetic, admittedly Anglocentric, listing of active dealers who have been known to be purveyors of fine old medieval swords.
Auctions have a reputation of being where dealers and the most seasoned collectors buy wholesale at a discount, and where great bargains and terrible mistakes both await. While both may be true to some extent, in fact, for items as unique and difficult to estimate the value of as medieval swords, many sellers prefer to let the auction mechanism set the value of their items. For this reason, if you do not consider the major auctions as a retail source you will be excluding yourself from a substantial proportion of the opportunities to acquire medieval swords.
While medieval swords may well rarely turn up in small general auction houses throughout Europe, it is generally only the serious professional dealer who will do the rounds and have the contacts to know which sale is the "once in a decade sale". Presuming you must work at some sort of job to have the cash to consider acquiring such things, covering these salesrooms yourself is as unproductive as scouring the local American suburban garage sales for genuine antique medieval swords: unless you get very very lucky, a lifetime of looking may produce nothing. The usual place to look are the arms and armour sales held by the major international general auction houses, Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips, Bonham's and at specialist auctioneers such as Hermann Historica. These sales are traditionally covered by illustrated catalogs available internationally by subscription or as single copies, however, increasingly the information from the catalogs is also available on the InterNet. The wide coverage of the illustrated catalogues and InterNet listings makes for more retail level bidders and makes attempts at ringing a sale less effective. Ringing refers to an illegal practice of bidders conspiring not to bid against one another at the public auction in order to secure the item cheaply, after which it is privately reauctioned among the conspirators who then share in the profits denied the seller at the public auction.
Usually the items on sale will be available for examination for a few days before the sale. If you live near one of these sales, these viewings may be among the best opportunities to actually handle medieval swords and other fine antique arms and armor. While the major auction houses will usually accurately describe the nature and condition of the items, if you are considering bidding, you should make every effort to view the object or hire an agent to do so as your proxy. Having local agents in London and New York may also spare you the costs of subscribing to all the catalogues; your agent will usually be glad to notify you when something of potential interest is coming up.
Phrases such as "in medieval style" are auctioneer's jargon warning that the experts in charge of the sale do not believe the item to be of the period it purports to be. Such euphemisms will be how Victorian era wall hangers are cataloged. If you are serious about an item and do not understand descriptions in the catalog describing it, do not hesitate to ask the experts in the Arms & Armor department; they are usually on hand during the viewings or may be called in advance of the sales.
If you choose to bid in an auction, there are a few additional things to realize. First, there will likely be a buyer's premium of 15 percent on top of the hammer or bid price and sales tax or VAT on top of that depending upon the jurisdiction. Second, if you are planning to bid on a very expensive item it may be wise to establish your creditworthiness with the auction house at least a few days before the sale. Third, the prices realized at auction are not always the product of a rational and reproducible marketplace. For an item with little demand, you may be bidding against the wall, that is, against the seller's reserve (minimum acceptable) price and not another person desiring to purchase the item. The rules about this will be in the catalog and auction houses rarely allow a reserve to exceed their low estimate. Two head strong collectors may also run each other up bidding far more than the item is worth. The "winner" may well get the item, but may never be able to recoup the investment if he tires of it. Be cautious of "auction fever". Similarly, in rare instances the right people will miss an auction and bargains may be had. For this reason, if you want something and can't be at the auction to bid on it, you should not be timid about leaving a bid you can afford, even though you fully expect it to fail for being too low, as "insurance" against regret for having sat on your hands and not having bid at all only to see the lot hammered down to another for less than you would gladly have paid.
If you cannot attend the sale, you may leave bidding instructions with the auction house and their Bidding Department will bid on your behalf up to the specified amount without additional charge. If you have had a dealer view the object on your behalf, his services in handling the bidding are usually included in the ten or so percent fee which you will pay to him on top of the sale price if you (and he) are successful.
If you are a novice, it may well make very good sense to make the investment of having a dealer view the item(s) of interest with you. While the auction house experts are usually very good, they occasionally have a tendency to seriously understate the price range for an object. Whether this represents uncertainty on their part about the strength of a particular segment of the market, a come-on to encourage interest in the auction or an attempt not to inflate the expectations of a seller not expected to deal well with disappointment, you may never know. A dealer should be able to give you a realistic evaluation of the auctioneer's description as well, and warn you if the item in question has a reputation as a fake.
Which leads me to a final anecdote told to me by a dealer who had bought a fake in one of those buy it now or miss it situations, offering no chance of future return to the seller. The dealer had invested a substantial amount of money in this object. Realizing it was a modern copy once it was too late, the dealer valued his reputation too highly to dump it on any of his clients. Naturally, he didn't want the thing around either. So where to dump the "dud"? He followed the usual practice of having a third party place it in an auction making no assertions concerning it in the expectation that the auction house expert would classify it as "in the style of ..." and that he would write down ninety percent of the cost of the thing. Instead, this item was embraced by the auction house and sold well over its high estimate. Even now it is lurking in a prized place in someone's collection. Buyer beware!
A final few caveats should be considered by the would-be collector of European medieval swords, particularly when one contemplates buying from outside of one's own country. An increasing number of nations, and organizations of nations (i.e., the European Union), have enacted patrimony or heritage laws which regulate the export of archaeological items and or antiques. As such laws are diverse and vary by the enacting country and are often evolving and changing, it is beyond the scope of this essay to attempt to provide current specifics, and none of the concepts mentioned should be construed as legal advice. Common sense dictates that if you are contemplating purchasing an item subject to such regulations, you should carefully investigate the applicable regulations as it may make little sense to pay a great deal of money to acquire something you cannot drag back home to your lair.
While absolute prohibitions on export may well exist in some jurisdictions, the usual requirement is that an export license be applied for and approved. The sales rooms of the major international auctioneers being located in Great Britain, a brief and possibly very out of date review of the procedures there may be instructive as an example. All archaeological items recovered in Britain and antiques having values exceeding specified limits, which vary with the type of antique, require an export permit, consequently many medieval swords will require a permit; the cheaper excavated condition ones because they are archaeological items and the most expensive examples in the best condition on the basis of high value. A brief synopsis of current value limits is usually specified somewhere within the pages of fine print in auction catalogs, along with the disclaimer that, while the auctioneer or their shipping agents will assist, for a fee, in handling the application for the required permit, there can be no guarantee that it will be issued. There will also be a statement that you must promptly remit payment for the item including buyer's commission and value added tax thereupon in a prompt manner, irrespective of whether a permit is required. Does this mean you could spend a lot of money to gain legal title to a fine medieval sword only to find storage and insurance fees being piled on while you wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn and have yet to even touch your treasure? Absolutely! The application, which includes a description and photographs, is filed with the Department of Trade, which will then circulate it to advisors, generally museum professionals, who are asked to make a determination if the sword if of such material historical or artistic significance that its removal from the country would constitute a misfortune. The risk of objection to export increases as the item under consideration becomes more exceptional; however in most cases, I am told, there will be adequate numbers of similar examples illustrating the historical record in various public collections and no objection will be raised.
Rarely, however, an objection will be raised to issuance of the export license, in which case, at least in Britain, the application will be referred to a reviewing committee for a hearing where both sides may present their arguments. The committee will then present its recommendation to the Minister for the Arts for final determination. When the decision concurs with the expert advisor protesting export, a deadline will be set until which public collections may offer to purchase the object at a fair market price set by the reviewing committee. The price and willingness (or not) of the owner to permit exhibition for museum fund raising purposes will have been considered in setting the length of time during which a desiring public collection must raise the funds and make an offer. In the event no offer is made, the export permit will be issued after the specified term. If an offer is made and rejected, export will be indefinitely prohibited, though the owner will remain able to sell the item within the United Kingdom.
For items recently sold at public auction, the specified fair market value is likely to be set as that determined by the sale, so financial loss in the event of a denied permit would be limited to lost interest, incidental expenses and to fluctuations in exchange rates, when applicable. A greater potential for disagreement over the fair market value may exist when items sold by private treaty are considered. In some cases a potential buyer will be able to negotiate for a sale to be contingent upon the issuance of an export permit, however, those purchases requiring quick decisions at arms fairs may not offer such recourse. Consider also that the level of due process and safeguards found in the British regulations offered as an example may not be achieved in many jurisdictions.
As the usual venue for the sale of such items, the major auction houses, being under scrutiny, will usually make a reasonable effort to insure that their buyers comply with these regulations. Dealers are often surprisingly ignorant of these laws, or feign ignorance, not wishing to risk losing a sale, being drawn into the process or revealing for what price they have sold an item. As ignorance of the law is rarely accepted as an excuse and violation of these regulations may be viewed as a serious criminal offense in many jurisdictions, collectors arranging international transport of such items are well advised to carefully familiarize themselves with the applicable regulations.
When packing for international transport, whether as an unaccompanied shipment or as baggage, consider the possibility that a customs inspection of the shipment may be required. While on one hand, you will not wish to package your sword in a manner such that it can be easily pilfered from its shipping container with no obvious outward evidence, you also will not want to package it in such a manner that the packaging will have to be destroyed in the process of opening, making it difficult for you, the customs inspector or the carrier to do a good job of repackaging for continuing shipment. For airline baggage, foam lined gun cases, latched closed and wrapped a few times around with fiber reinforced strapping tape may be an alternative.
Unaccompanied transport is much easier now than even a decade ago, when the choices were relatively slow registered mail, often subject to serious insurance limitations, or expensive air freight arrangements. The proliferation of courier companies, such as FedEx, which provide expedited transport, full value insurance and customs clearance, when required, has greatly simplified and economized the process of shipping these precious antiques. Nevertheless, I have heard stories, from reliable dealers, of such shipments never arriving or of only the empty shipping container being delivered. Personally, I have never suffered a loss from such a shipment. Consider also, in the event of loss, insurance only replenishes the collector's war chest for the fair market value in order to resume the search, and the loss of such a unique item is usually much worse than the loss of the equivalent in cash, as the long efforts and incidental expenses surrounding the acquisition of a medieval sword will not likely be recovered.
Accompanied transport via air has its own set of hassles. Although I have heard anecdotes of airlines making reasonable accommodations in the transport of rare, fragile antique weapons, my own experience with several airlines has always been that of a blind resolute insistence on their part that such items be checked as baggage, and that, being antiques, these items are ineligible for any insurance coverage beyond the very low weight based limits meant for general baggage. Once you get into the mindset of having your medieval sword travel as essentially uninsured checked airline baggage, if you can shift into that mindset, the biggest hurdle has been cleared. As a matter of course, I have always advised the check-in personnel whenever I have had edged weapons in my checked baggage. I have never experienced difficulties with having antique swords in my checked baggage from either the standpoint of the airline accepting my baggage or with the security checks (usually x-rays) they perform. Similarly, I have never had such an item lost or significantly damaged by the airlines. But, if you ask enough collectors, you will eventually hear horror stories, and it all comes down in the end to how much risk you are comfortable with. I have heard of, though never investigated, the possibility of insuring such baggage through a third party insurer.
As to the other side of international transactions, importation, I understand that import duties and or value added tax may be assessed when such items are brought into member states of the European Union. Antiques, being articles defined in the tariff as being at least one hundred years old, which are imported for personal use are, at the time of this writing, permitted duty free entry into the United States of America. You should be explicit in your declaration that your sword is an antique and over one hundred years of age, and, if inclined to show off, you may quote classification 9706.00.00 in the tariff (lesser known is a similar duty exemption 9705.00.00 for legitimate ethnographic items). Customs officers will usually accept your declaration, but may also ask to see documentation of its value and or antique status or the item itself. For the former, for a recent purchase, the usual documentation would be a bill of sale which describes the item in reasonable detail and as an antique and specifies the price. Lacking such documentation, I have occasionally paid duty on items I regarded as obviously antique, rather than take the more troublesome, time consuming and expensive route of appealing the decision. The irony, of course, is that all too many dealers will be glad to supply such a document declaring antiquity and any value you request, in order to cinch the sale. I've had that offer made to me far more times than I have had a customs officer question my own declaration.
Just as with value added tax liability for Europeans, another caveat for residents of many states within the USA is that of liability for use tax, which is assessed in lieu of and usually charged at the same rate as sales tax. If you live in one of the majority of states having such a tax, you are responsible for declaring and paying tax upon out of state and international purchases. Some states, including New York, examine customs declarations for large ticket items in order to enforce collection of this tax.