“It all kind of started about five years ago, when I was [writing] a book set in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars,” James Meaney, proprietor of J.F. Meaney Antique Arms, said. “I started doing a lot of research on that era, and stumbled upon the swords by chance, really.”
For many, swords are seen as fixtures in medieval-period films, or are maybe found hanging on a flimsy rack in an obscure mall shop.
But these ancient instruments, with thousands of years of history, reflect the evolution of human society. Although it’s not certain when the first sword was made, it’s clear they’ve been a central implement of warfare since the beginning of recorded history. For folks who collect blades of all kinds, their value comes from the history attached to each piece.
Sword collectors on the Island are few and far between, but Meaney has plenty of connections with fellow collectors and resellers from all across the country.
After he worked as a chef at Garde East one summer, Meaney saved up enough money to start a collection. He started investigating how much it would cost to get his hands on a Napoleonic War–era sword.
Meaney scoured the internet looking for the right sword, and eventually came upon what he initially thought was a Napoleonic sword.
He bought the piece, and discovered it wasn’t a European sword at all, but an American sword made in the 1830s. “I got mad because I thought I got ripped off, but it turns out this sword is the only sword of its type by this maker, so it’s extremely rare,” Meaney said.
The bladesmith and sword mounter was none other than the famed F.W. Widmann of Philadelphia, and the purchase started Meaney down a path through American history that led him to some interesting and surprising finds.
One area of American swords that Meaney specializes in is the intricate and distinctive eagle-head 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 the history of American warfare.
Apart from the beauty of the bronze eagle heads, another reason Meaney has recently focused his collection on this era and this type of sword is that it’s very hard to make a convincing fake.
For a while, Meaney dabbled in collecting Japanese swords, and even had a wakizashi from the early- to mid-Edo period — forged in the mid-1600s.
But Meaney soon realized that Japanese swords were one of the most commonly faked swords, and said he’s sure plenty of people have been burned buying katanas or wakizashis online from resellers.
“I definitely suggest that if you’re pretty green to sword collecting, you should start out in this [Napoleonic] era, and not in Japanese or Civil War swords,” Meaney explained. “They’ve gotten so sophisticated at faking wear, age, and patina. There’s really no fake eagle heads out there, and if you’re an experienced collector, you can spot the difference from a mile away.”
One important ability of any sword collector is being able to date a sword based on the maker, and on certain aspects like etching, hilt and pommel design, and blade thickness.
Meaney described the ornate grape-leaf carvings above the hand guard of his Widmann dress saber, and then identified the same embossed bronze tape on another sword of a later vintage.
“You notice how this piece is much thinner in the later sword? Widmann had this special roll of embossed tape with this design — my theory is that later on in his life, he had run out of that decorative tape, so he had to kind of scrimp and save each piece,” Meaney suggested. “It’s all about the investigative work and the hours of research, and that’s a really fun part of the process.”
Meany will often buy swords from Ebay, do some touchup at his home workshop to eliminate rust or discoloration, then put them back on auction on Ebay. He also will regularly display his swords at Second Treasures in Vineyard Haven, for anyone looking to get a collection started.
Meaney can make a decent profit on the pieces he fixes up and resells. His Widmann saber with an ebony grip is currently listed on Ebay at $4,000.
Part of the value comes from the condition of the Widmann sword, which Meaney said is impressive considering its age. “This one is also really rare — there is only one other documented sword with this hilting. Nobody knows its whereabouts,” Meaney said.
For Meaney, his favorite part of the entire process of buying, refurbishing, and reselling swords is the moment he unwraps a new piece and holds it in his hands.
“Especially if it’s something super-nice like a Widmann — I mean, the guy made a presentation sword for Andrew Jackson when he was president,” Meaney said.
With such a broad range of makers, origins, and eras of American swords, Meaney has a veritable library of reference books, and is in close contact with a handful of sword experts.
Because this area of sword collecting is so niche, the folks who are passionate about it are usually highly knowledgeable, Meaney explained. He’s proud to be a part of that small community of collectors, even if he is the youngest sword aficionado he knows. “The median age of these guys is like 70,” he laughed.
As a history buff from an early age, Meaney sees swords as a way to learn more about some fascinating and formative times in America’s past, make a bit of coin, and have some good fun along the way.
“You learn so much when you collect swords,” he said. “You could do this for your whole life and you will always learn something new, because you are weeding through thousands of years of history.”