“It all started about five years ago, when I was [writing] a book set in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars,” said James Meaney, owner of JF Meaney Antique Arms. “I started doing a lot of research on this era and came across the swords by chance, really.”
For many, swords are seen as props in films from the medieval period, or can be found hanging from a flimsy rack in an obscure mall store.
But these ancient instruments, with thousands of years of history, reflect the evolution of human society. Although the date of manufacture of the first sword is not certain, it is clear that it has been a central instrument of war since the beginning of recorded history. For collectors of blades of all kinds, their value comes from the history attached to each piece.
Sword collectors on the island are rare, but Meaney has many contacts with other collectors and dealers across the country.
After working as a chef at Garde East one summer, Meaney saved up enough money to start a collection. He began to investigate the cost of getting his hands on a Napoleonic War era sword.
Meaney scoured the internet for the right sword and finally came across what he initially thought was a Napoleonic sword.
He bought the piece and discovered that it was not a European sword at all, but an American sword made in the 1830s. Turns out this sword is the only such sword by this maker, so it’s extremely rare,” Meaney said.
The blacksmith and swordsman was none other than the famed FW Widmann of Philadelphia, and the purchase set Meaney on a journey through American history that led to some interesting and surprising discoveries.
One of the areas of American swords in which Meaney specializes is the intricate and distinctive eagle-headed pommel swords made by Widmann. The design, according to Meaney, has often been referred to as one of the most iconic and recognizable pommels in American warfare history.
Besides the beauty of bronze eagle heads, another reason Meaney has recently focused his collection on this era and this type of sword is that it is very difficult to make a convincing fake.
For a time, Meaney dabbled in collecting Japanese swords and even had an early to mid-Edo period wakizashi – forged in the mid-1600s.
But Meaney soon realized that Japanese swords were one of the most commonly faked swords, and said he was sure many people had been burned buying katanas or wakizashis online from dealers. .
“I definitely suggest that if you’re green enough to collect swords, you should start in this area. [Napoleonic] era, not in Japanese or Civil War swords,” Meaney explained. “They’ve gotten so sophisticated at simulating wear, age and patina. There really aren’t any fake eagle heads, and if you’re an experienced collector, you can tell the difference a mile away. distance.
An important ability of any sword collector is to be able to date a sword based on the maker and certain aspects such as engraving, hilt and pommel design, and blade thickness.
Meaney described the ornate vine leaf carvings above the handguard of his Widmann dress saber, then identified the same bronze ribbon in relief on another sword of a later vintage.
“Notice how much thinner this piece is in the last sword? Widmann had this special roll of duct tape embossed with this design – my theory is later in life he ran out of this decorative tape, so he had to kind of skimp and keep every piece,” Meaney suggested. “It’s all about investigative work and hours of research, and that’s a really fun part of the process.”
Meany will often buy swords on Ebay, do a few touch-ups in his home workshop to remove any rust or discoloration, then put them up for auction on Ebay. He will also regularly display his swords at Second Treasures in Vineyard Haven, for anyone looking to start a collection.
Meaney can make a decent profit on the parts he repairs and resells. His Widmann saber with an ebony hilt is currently listed on Ebay for $4,000.
Part of the value comes from the condition of the Widmann sword, which Meaney says is impressive considering its age. “This one is also very rare – there is only one other documented sword with this hilt. No one knows where it is,” Meaney said.
For Meaney, his favorite part of the whole process of buying, refurbishing and reselling swords is when he unwraps a new piece and holds it in his hands.
“Especially if it’s something super cool like a Widmann – I mean the guy made a presentation sword for Andrew Jackson when he was president,” Meaney said.
With such a wide range of American sword makers, origins, and eras, Meaney has a veritable library of reference works and is in close contact with a handful of sword experts.
Because this area of sword collecting is so specialized, people who are passionate about it are usually very knowledgeable, Meaney explained. He is proud to be part of this small community of collectors, even though he is the youngest sword enthusiast he knows. “The median age of these guys is around 70,” he laughed.
As a history buff from a young age, Meaney sees swords as a way to learn about some fascinating and formative eras of America’s past, to earn some money, and to have fun along the way. road.
“You learn so much when you collect swords,” he said. “You could do this your whole life and you’ll always learn something new as you weed thousands of years of history.”