Man can be a brutal species - never more so than in the modern age, when technology has allowed us to develop horrifying weapons of mass destruction capable of killing thousands of nameless people in one fell swoop. In days of yore, however, before such technology was developed, brutal acts were a much more personal affair. For thousands of years, before even the advent of gunpowder, armies fought in vicious hand-to-hand battles. The battles were ugly, harsh, and extremely bloody, and you had to stare your combattant in the eye as you ran him down.
The weapons responsible for this brutal and intimate act of war have become iconic, even legendary - many weapons become just as famous as their owners, some become mythologised like the legendary King Arthur and Excalibur. Here, we're bringing you profiles of the ten most legendary and concurrently expensive swords that exist in the world today. Many of these weapons have probably taken lives, and most of them are valuable from a purely historical perspective.
Katanas are traditional, single-edged swords that were used by Japanese Samurai for hundreds of years. They are crafted from the finest materials and are considered the sharpest and most exquisite swords in the world. 125 of these weapons have even been declared as Juyounkabazai - or culturally significant - in Japan. This means that the prized katanas are illegal to sell or export from Japan, and are considered priceless.
In 1992, about 1,100 Japanese swords were put up for auction from Dr. Walter Ames Compton’s collection. The collection was sold for $8 million in just a single day, and included was the 13th century Kamakura blade, selling for $418,000 to an anonymous private collector. It remains the most expensive katana ever sold at private auction.
Many artifacts are worth a lot of money purely because of who once owned them, as in the case of Lord Nelson’s officer sword, discovered amidst a trove of relics discovered in 2001. Included in the discovery were thousands of papers and documents, medals, jewels, and weaponry belonging to Nelson. They were kept hidden in a trunk for nearly 200 years under the care of Nelson’s closest friend and confidant, Alexander Davison.
In 2002, the collection was curated and sold at Sotheby’s London for over £2 million, setting new benchmarks for the sale of objects relating to Nelson. A story of the collection and its discovery was published in 2004, titled Nelson’s Purse after a bloodstained purse was found in the trunk, believed to have been recovered from Nelson’s dying body at the battle of Trafalgar.
This royal blade was sold in 2007 at Sotheby’s. It is a slightly curved European blade with traces of overlaid gold decoration and an inlaid gold inscription. The beautiful sword is further decorated with poppies and lotuses, and was believed to have belonged to the 17th century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
It is one of the most significant discoveries of a courtly object reserved for the personal use of an Emperor, and was produced during Shah Jahan’s 10th regnal year, either in 1637 or 1638. The sword was sold for over seven times its estimated auction amount of 60,000 GBP, eventually selling for 446,100 GBP.
This exquisite hunting knife is believed to have been owned by Qianlong, the 6th Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The hilt of the knife was crafted from antelope horn, which is quite rare, and a secret opening at the base of the hilt reveals a hidden compartment used to hold a pair of chopsticks and a toothpick.
The scabbard of the weapon was made from rhinoceros horn and was tapered with six three-clawed dragons writhing in and out of clouds above waves. The knife was made from gold and the sheath was inlaid with turquoise, coral, and lazurite, making experts believe that this blade indeed belonged to the Emperor Qianlong. It was sold at Sotheby’s in 2009 for 9,620,000 HKD.
Here we have another sword that belonged to a very important historical figure, Ulysses S. Grant. He was given the sword in 1864 by the people of Kentucky when he took the position of General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. The alluring weapon features 26 diamonds that were formed to spell out his initials: U.S.G., and it sold for $1.6 million in 2007 as part of the Heritage Auctions.
The “Gem of the Orient” is a lavish knife, designed and crafted in 1966 by Buster Warenski, a man in his twenties. Almost 50 years later, Warenski is considered one of the world’s greatest knife makers. He served two terms as the president of the Knifemaker’s Guild in his thirties.
The “Gem of the Orient” was created for a Japanese customer. The filigree handle was encrusted with 153 emeralds totaling 10 carats, nine diamonds (5-carats), and 28 ounces of gold was used to create the rest of the handle and blade. It supposedly took Warenski 10 years to make.
This is the second weapon on the list that belonged to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It fetched 1,700,000 GBP at the Bonhams Indian and Islamic sale in London, in 2008. Shah Jahan ruled from 1627-1657, and the dagger is an understated, elegant blade with gold inscriptions and decorations. It sold for five times its anticipated value of 300,000 GBP.
The dagger was part of a collection by the late Belgian Jacques Desenfans, a man who spent over 50 years amassing his huge collection of Southeast Asian arms, armor, pottery, and works of art. The inscription on the dagger is the most detailed of any of Shah Jahan’s personal objects, containing his name, title, and the place and date of the dagger’s manufacture.
Ear daggers are some of the most significant contributions to the Nasrid period, originating in North Africa. This double-edged straight blade gets its name from the design of the hilt pommel, consisting of two flattened discs that resemble ears. They were widely used in Spain during the 15th and 16 centuries, and were introduced to Europe through Italy.
The decoration around the blade comprises the figure of a man with a crossbow, hunting numerous animals (including a lion). The dagger sold in 2010 for over six times its estimated price of 600,000 GBP, with the lot bringing in over 3.7 million GBP.
Napoleon Bonaparte was known to carry a pistol and a sword on the battlefield. This gold-encrusted sword is the same one that was used by Bonaparte at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, when he ousted the Austrian army from Italy.
It was passed down from generation to generation of the Bonaparte family, and was deemed an historical monument and therefore unable to leave the country. It sold in France in 2007 from one descendant of Napoleon’s brother, Jerome, to another descendant. The curved saber was forged by Nicolas Noel Boutet and is decorated in gold and has an ebony and gold handle.
This beautiful sword and scabbard was actually sold twice, first in 2006 for $5.93 million, and again two years later for $7.7 million. The weapon is the second on the list with inscriptions and decorations alluding to the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. It is an S-shaped saber with a fitted white-jade handle stylized with ornate leaves and floret.
The steel blade is decorated with inlaid gold, silver, and copper, with one side revealing a poetic two-character name: Bao Teng, or 'Soaring Precious'. The work was made in the Palace Workshops of the Imperial Household Department, and is representative of the mid-Qing Dynasty. A production of 90 sabers was created over 47 years, and the weapon’s worth is down to both its aesthetic and historical value.