The dragon is accompanied by a certificate of authentication as a kicho kodogu [Valuable Sword Fitting] issued by the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (Society for the Preservation of the Japan Art Sword) in 1949, just a year after the establishment of that government-backed institution. Such certificates relating to objects other than swords and fittings are very few in number.
Another example by the same artist was sold in Christie’s New York, 18th March 2014, Lot 534.
THE MYOCHIN DRAGONS
The Myochin family of iron armour makers originally specialised in helmets, but iron cuirasses and other components with Myochin signatures are found from the 17th century. Their work became increasingly decorative with embossed decoration especially on plate iron cuirasses which had become popular during the Momoyama period in response to the wide-spread use of guns in warfare. By the 18th century the Myochin had become established as fine armour makers on a large scale with branch schools in the provinces. They also made articulated iron animals, all scaly creatures whose physiognomy lent itself to the skills of the armourers in hammering out curved plates and riveting them together to make elegantly shaped helmets and other armour parts. It is most probable that the early animal models were commissioned by the samurai owners of Myochin armour, and might well have been displayed in the tokonoma [alcoves of houses] along with armour, ceramics, and hanging painted scrolls. Fish, birds, crustaceans, insects, and dragons formed the usual repertoire, but the dragon was the most apposite to the taste of the samurai clientele both for its part in Shinto mythology, and for its association with esoteric Buddhism. In the Shingon sect the dragon and double edged sword, entwined together as the ‘kurikara’, symbolise the kensaku (spiritual lasso) and sword of the deity Fudo-Myo-O (Sanskrit Acala ‘The Unmoving’) revered for the unmoving spiritual attitude which the samurai aspired to. The dragon is also a manifestation of other deities.
The iron creatures are frequently signed, on fins, under the belly, or under the chin as is the usual case with dragons. The signatures are those of certain helmet makers, of who the earliest is thought to be Myochin Kunimichi active from around the mid seventeenth century. Kunimichi himself claimed a long ancestry with famous generals and even ancient Emperors as his clients. He drew up a family genealogy which was published in 1680 by his son Munesuke (or Sosuke) as the ‘Myochin Rekidai Zukufu’. Munesuke was one of the greatest of Myochin armourers along with names like the earlier Nobuie. The helmet offered (Lot 127) is by this Munesuke, an embossed helmet by whom in the form of an abalone shell is illustrated in the Mene Collection. A model iron raven in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is signed by the same artist1 and an impressive model of a shachi (dragon-fish) rather larger than a similar piece in the British Museum and signed Myochin Shikibu Munesuke was sold in these Rooms on 11 September 2012 (lot 109).
The present dragon (lot 130) is signed Nobumasa, a name traditionally linked to that of the helmet maker Nobuie, and believed to date from the 18th century. A similar dragon also signed Nobumasa is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) collection (number AAM M.37-1947), but his work is otherwise rare.
1. Birds in the Art of Japan, Sackler Gallery Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 February 2013 - 28 July 2013.