GUITARS: The Tsumura Collection
by Akira Tsumura 1987:Tokyo,
Kodansha International/USA Ltd.
192 pages (dist. Harper & Row Inc., New York)
The first time I flipped past the hundreds of virtually perfect vintage guitars depicted so magnificently in Akira Tsumura's book, my thoughts turned, curiously, to the Egyptian antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Here were displayed, like the gilded contents of Tutankhamen's tomb, the cream of a faded but once-great nation's cultural legacy, purchased in prodigious quantities and transferred en masse to a now richer nation far, far away.
I savored this somewhat facile irony for a while, until I had the chance to seriously sit down and contemplate the book, absorb its beauty, and think about why Akira Tsumura had gone to so much trouble and expense.
Reading the fine print on the dust cover, I learned that Mr. Tsumura was in charge of the world's largest manufacturer of traditional Japanese herbal medicines. In Japan (as in China and many other Asiatic countries), this herbal therapy is more prevalent than so-called Modern Western Medicine. Thus it was that this man of means could bankroll his yen (!) for the finest examples of American musical craft-culture.
I also discovered that Mr. Tsumura is Japan's top Dixieland banjo player, establishing his own Japanese Dixieland band, the Storyville Dandies, in 1961. He must have come down with quite a case of American Culture playing in an Ann Arbor Dixieland band, the "Boll Weevils" while a business major at the University of Michigan during the late fifties. Not your usual culture-thief!
Having studied about some of the major art collections in art school, I'd become aware that good collectors usually express a lot about their own personality in the focus and choices they make, and how they choose to display their collections. And by this standard, Akira Tsumura is a very fine collector, indeed. What emerges from "GUITARS: The Tsumura Collection" is a man with a deep, abiding love for guitars and a genuine passion for American popular culture.
This became obvious to me after I noticed several interesting things about this book. It depicts not only his vast and fabulous collection, but also the collections of several other Japanese and American collectors, each far smaller but of equally excellent quality and focus. Also, Tsumura's own collection spans the entire gamut from the Ridiculous to the Sublime: it is definitely not a show-off hoard of the most stratospherically expensive guitar specimens that can be purchased anywhere. For sure, the collection does include at least a dozen of perhaps the most costly examples of American guitarmaking extant anywhere, in any collection.
But the Tsumura collection is most notable, in my view, for largely consisting of instruments of special interest and cultural importance, rather than simply of instruments of great monetary value. This is evidenced by the inclusion (and by the displaying with a prominence equal to all those breathtaking D'Angelicos and Super 400's) of what would appear to be the world's most complete inventory of Hawaiian Ukeleles and Slide Guitars, each probably quite worthless in cash value, but each equally fascinating and beautiful; each more jewel-like and whimsical in form and conception than the next.
In addition, we can see here a emarkable parade of bizarre, overheated European impressions of the American Guitar Dream, as as concocted by such firms as Levin and Hofner: each frosted more garishly with ice-textured pearloid than the one before. There's also the definitive collection of now-obsolete Tenor and Plectrum guitars, some that can only be described as cheap old battle-axes, others that are exquisitely rare and unique.
Finally, your typical culture thief would likely stash all his Second Dynasty treasures in a vault, waiting for the prices to go up. But Tsumura's personally surround him, living where HE lives: his strung-up flowers spill all over the rooms in his house and indeed, all around his smiling family, like bouquets of delicate and colorful flower petals.
William R. Cumpiano © 1995 All Rights Reserved
Postscript: Sadly, Mr. Tsumura's fortunes waned. The last I heard, Mr. Tsumura's collection was up for sale by the company he directed. You can read what eventually happened to Tsumura and his collection here.