What I buy and why: Peter Janssen explains how a flea market find inspired him to create a premier private collection of samurai artifacts

Three decades after stumbling upon a samurai sword at a flea market in his hometown of Berlin, German entrepreneur Peter Janssen has amassed a formidable and highly focused art collection dedicated to legendary Japanese fighters. Its trove of artifacts spans a millennium and explores the culture and myth that surrounded the samurai throughout the centuries.

Today, Janssen, who also has a black belt in karate, owns more than 4,000 items. About 1,000 of them are on display in a new museum he opened this month in the German capital.

Located next to the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Samurai Museum is a two-story venue in the Mitte district (the primary location was the longtime home of the Thomas Olbricht Collection, which closed in 2020). It highlights regions and styles of samurai clothing and tools, of an 18th century palanquin (a covered carriage supported by human porters) to delicate tea utensils dating back to the 1500s.

With its range of armour, helmets and masks, as well as rare handcrafted swords dating back to the 8th century, the exhibition cleverly uses virtual reality and interactive elements to help bring samurai culture to life, demystifying customs, myths and rituals of through their history. On virtual educational panels, you can scroll through objects on display in nearby display cases, then zoom in to learn more about their aesthetic details and design stories. The museum also has film installations that bring these legendary characters to life.

On the heels of the Samurai Museum’s opening, Artnet News caught up with Janssen about his collection, the life-size Japanese-style theater and teahouse he commissioned for the space, and more.

Installation view, Matsudaira clan armour, Edo period (17th-18th century). Photo: Alexander Schippel © Samurai Museum Berlin

What was your first purchase?

I bought a Katana [a Japanese sword characterized by a curved, single-edged blade] at a flea market. I never intended to collect it, but here we are over 30 years later.

What was your last purchase?

There was a child armor missing from the collection, so I decided to buy one when the opportunity arose. He belonged to a high standing daimyo (a feudal lord) and was painstakingly designed, just like a life-size model, but only meant for a short time as the child would quickly grow out of it. It fascinated me.

What works or artists do you hope to add to your collection this year?

A tsuba (sword guard) of the Ishiguro school. The school was founded by Ishiguro Masatsune at the end of the Edo period, who developed patterns and techniques that influenced entire generations. He is particularly known for using a dark alloy composed of copper and gold (shakudo) and his fine carving technique and his drawings of flowers and birds. I like that a lot of pieces are signed, you feel a connection with the person who made it.

Swords at the Samurai Museum in Berlin.  Photo: Mario Heller © Samurai Museum Berlin

Swords at the Samurai Museum in Berlin. Photo: Mario Heller © Samurai Museum Berlin

What is the most expensive work of art you own?

Armor of the Matsudaira clan. It is the clan from which comes Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. This armor is a representative example of the types of armor made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for wealthy patrons. The period was characterized by nostalgia among the warrior class and a sense of nostalgia for bygone eras when their ancestors had performed glorious deeds in battle. Some had authentic old armor refurbished for their use, while others, like the one in my collection, had new armor made in old styles that incorporated old components.

Installation view.  Photo: Alexander Schippel © Samurai Museum Berlin

Installation view. Photo: Alexander Schippel © Samurai Museum Berlin

Where do you most often buy art?

Mainly through auctions and resellers. Over the years I have also developed many friendships with other collectors from whom I also occasionally buy.

Is there a work you regret buying?

No, each piece is dear to me for different reasons.

What work have you hung above your couch?

I don’t have a wall behind my couch! Other than that, I don’t keep much of my collection at home except for my office. My most prized possessions from the collection are now in the museum and I enjoy seeing them as I walk through it.

Noh Theater at the Samurai Museum in Berlin.  Photo: Alexander Schippel © Samurai Museum Berlin

Noh Theater at the Samurai Museum in Berlin. Photo: Alexander Schippel © Samurai Museum Berlin

What’s the least practical piece of art you own?

It would probably be Noh-Theater, which I commissioned for the museum. It was built in Japan using traditional building techniques, then shipped to Berlin and reassembled by Japanese craftsmen. It’s a beautiful thing to see and it really is a work of art.

What work would you have liked to buy when you had the opportunity?

An ancient suit of armor in its original condition from the 14th century. Now it is in another collection and I very much regret it.

If you could steal one piece of art without getting caught, what would it be?

The “Big Maple Leaf” exhibit at the Bode Museum, but it has already been stolen. I might be able to get it back.

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