Arma Virumque Cano, I sing of arms and the man. Thus begins the first line of Virgil’s epic Latin poem, The Aeneid, which came to mind as I sat down to write about one of the most fascinating and extraordinary experiences I’ve recently had.
Late one afternoon, I found myself in Downtown LA, standing in a large high-ceilinged room surrounded by a selection of rare items from the largest private collection of arms and armor that holds, according to its owners, more than 6,000 objects across 50 years, spanning 6000 years, including many Viking swords dating from before the Middle Ages.
What was I doing there? Good question. I was there because on June 22 in New York at the Explorer’s Club you will have the opportunity to see a selection of these treasures, the Harriet Dean Alexandria Sword among them, at an event launching a collection of NFTs by Richey and The Knights Who Say Nah, an organization that hopes to use the sale of its NFTs to support the conservation and preservation of these antiquities as well as to partner with and support the institutions that exhibit them. The initial mint features PFP NFTs that represent groups of ancient warriors and will be followed by a subsequent release of 3D models. Since these items are so rare that few people ever see them, Richey hopes that NFTs will, in his words, “democratize access” to these rare items in the metaverse.
The greatest Viking swords were Ulfberht, an usually strong blade comparable to Damascus Steel. These are the same type of sword one sees in the video game Assassin’s Creed Vahalla, and that many will recognize from the TV shows Vikings: Valhalla. There are probably 170 known Ulfberht Viking Swords still in existence, dating between the years 800 AD and 1000 AD. I was looking at a dozen of them.
Along the wall was a parade of battle helmets from the Greek era to the medieval. There was a Gothic War Hammer – on its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (The Met), several axes, and a wide variety of other battle gear.
In the middle of one the tables was a gleaming medieval broadsword bearing an Arabic inscription that reveals that it was presented in the fifteenth century to the Mamluk armory of the City of Alexandria in Egypt, possibly as a gift from the king of Cyprus. This is the famous Harriet Dean Alexandria Sword, one of two known exemplars, the other of which resides in the collection of the Met (that one being the brother sword, it is known as the Bashford Dean Sword).
Because I was not in a museum where such priceless artifacts would be kept in cases or behind glass, I was encouraged to pick up the sword, to hold it aloft, to slice at the air with it.
Let me say this: It felt surprisingly good – and not just in a let-me-indulge-my-Game-of-Thrones-fantasy way. The swords were so perfectly balanced that they did not feel heavy and holding them felt natural rather than awkward.
There were also 16th century rapiers from the Dresden Armory – beautiful swords with ornate handguards from the guards of the Duke of Brunswick in Hanover, Germany that any of the Three Musketeers would certainly have appreciated using.
Although the owner of the collection wishes to remain anonymous my cicerone that day was Nick Richey, the collection’s ‘Keeper of the Arms’ who was excited to share these treasures with me.
Richey grew up in Portland, Oregon and had no knowledge of ancient arms and armor or any background in conservation or preservation. However, through a friend he met the collection’s owner and began working for him. Richey found himself fascinated by the history of the objects and how to preserve them. He apprenticed himself to one of the Keepers of the Arms at the Tower of London and discovered a passion for these objects, their care and preservation, eventually becoming “Keeper of Arms” of this collection.
“I found that I really do love it,” Richey told me. “I love working with museums and getting objects ready to go to them. And I love the stories behind the objects because I’m learning each time.”
Here’s what I learned about ancient swords: A great sword was expensive, hard to make, and valuable even at the time. Combat swords were sometimes passed down from generation to generation. Other warriors had their swords buried with them, or had the swords “killed” (bent, broken) so others could not use it. Swords from the Carolingian era (800-888) are quite rare. Many of the Ulfbehrt swords were found in lakes or burial sites which poses its own problems.
“The moment they’re exposed to oxygen, the clock starts ticking,” Richey said. “The goal is to get [the item] to someone like me or some other professional who can immediately get it in a humidity-controlled environment and begin the process of preservation.” Even so, not everything can be rescued. “There’s been some objects that have crossed through my path and there’s just nothing you can do. You’re watching it disintegrate in front of your eyes.”
Restoring ancient swords requires meticulous attention and a great amount of creativity to stop the decay. Looking at some of the ancient swords whose edges are nicked or have crumbled over time, repair often seems impossible. However, Richey has specific techniques using ash and acetone soluble glue to make repairs (repairs which do no damage and can be undone).
The collection also features a variety of objects including Viking Throwing Axes, a gorgeous pre-Colombian gold bird pendant in really great condition, a Papua New Guinea war club, and a few Samurai swords whose curved blades are rightfully intimidating (holding one of these is a different experience, the blade feels heavy and is meant more for slashing than stabbing). In one corner, there was a group of flintlock pistols and Kentucky rifles from the 18th Century. There are even some dinosaur fossils including one preserved in what looks like a block of stone, as well as the skeleton of a 10-foot-tall standing Cave Bear.
But back to the future: Richey has big plans for his Knights Who Say Nah and their collections of NFTs and future presence in the Web 3.0 metaverse. He is creating warrior characters to populate the universe along with interactive 3D versions of items in the collection. That way, even if an item is donated to a museum, it can remain in the metaverse. “This perfect rendering kind of gives it an immortality that’ll live on this blockchain forever,” Richey said.
Beyond that, Richey hopes that in success, other private collectors and museums will want to work with the ecosystem he is creating. In Richey’s vision, The Knights Who Say Nah could be raising funds for museum armor collections through shared NFTs of items in their collection. Small museums devoted to indigenous people could create new revenue streams and ways to expand their reach by partnering with Richey’s NFT program and establishing a presence in the Knights Who Say Nah metaverse. In this way all manner of people all over the world could share in these treasures and support these museums and collections
“We want to build that into our ecosystem,” Richey said, “Where we’re saying: Let’s try to be a community that actually puts its money where its mouth is.” And all that starts June 22nd at the Explorers Club in New York.