This past weekend marked the GSBF Bonsai Garden Lake Merritt’s Mammoth Fundraiser – the annual auction and sale event that brings so many of Northern California’s bonsai enthusiasts to Oakland each February. This year’s auction comprised nearly 100 lots including some impressive trees from a private collection. Tools, pots, stones and bonsai took their turns on the block and all but a handful sold.
It was fun to see people sizing up the lots, making budgets, and eyeing each other ahead of the competitive bidding. As soon as the first tree went up for bid, the attention turned to the trees.
Elm and cedar
It was nice for the auction to include some high-quality trees. Although the reserves on some of the nicer trees took some audience members by surprise, the numbers weren’t terribly out of line.
Shimapku on a rock
Japanese maple forest
Gordon Deeg barked while Jay McDonald hefted lots.
Gordon and Jay – 2013
For those of you who missed the event two years ago:
Gordon and Jay – 2011
The GSBS staff has the drill down. Hats off to them for executing another successful fundraiser.
Last year’s Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention and Exhibit featured a high-priced, high tech, bonsai auction. Bidding was open to all convention attendees, so the trees went on display well ahead of the event. Some of the trees were awesome.
The auction also featured antique pots and stands. I was tempted to bid and very curious how much these items would fetch.
Pots and stands
The auctioneer was an experienced bonsai auctioneer and pot expert. Microphone duties fell to the talented bonsai professional Isao Omachi of Sendai.
Auctioneer and Omachi
The auctioneer opened the auction in the traditional fashion – he barked, “Sei-no!” and we clapped three times: clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap.
The event then got off to a rocky start. The auction followed the conventions of the Japanese bonsai community. Rather than offering set prices and soliciting bids, the auctioneer asked if we had bids, and bidders named their offers. The Japanese in the room followed this convention while some of the westerners indicated bids with gestures. Adding to the fun, translators provided English and Chinese versions of the bidding. This is where the high tech kicked in. Video projections of each tree filled a huge screen above the stage with graphics showing prices in Japanese yen, US dollars, and Chinese yuan.
The projection system worked very well, and the translators kept pace without making mistakes. Bidding, however, never really took off. Throughout the convention, many discussions had focused on the anticipation of rich Chinese buyers making the event a huge success. As over half of the registered attendees were Chinese, hopes were high. At the auction, however, most bids came from Japanese professionals. As a result, few lots sold beyond their actual value.
Shimpaku on the block
Of course, the numbers were much higher than any I’ve seen in California bonsai auctions. Good trees here went for good money.
The numbers in these photos don’t all correspond with the final bids – the trees were removed and the screens cleared right as bidding stopped.
Red pine from Korea – one of the demonstration trees
I didn’t end up bidding, but I thoroughly enjoyed the event. I’ll say more about the rest of the convention next week.
Towards the end of every month, bonsai professionals gather at a selected nursery for a night auction. The night auction is local to Central Japan and features material a step up from the 8 Auction, or Youkakai.
The first thing I noticed is that trees and pots to be auctioned sat in a fairly dark corner of the yard. One could only look so closely before the event started. Not that anyone complains – we were too busy with our gyoza, fried rice and miso soup. They tend to feed buyers well at auctions.
Trees and pots for sale
Once the event began, trees were carried inside one at a time – by Peter Tea, among others – and placed on a turntable were everyone, maybe a dozen buyers, could see. The folks up front had a great view of the trees, and they often handled them to get a better sense of what they were bidding on.
Examining a tree
This was my farovite part of the event. Prospective buyers had less than a minute to decide how to bid on each tree. I found myself sizing up trees with interest, appreciating the good points, noting any flaws, finding the front of the tree and making mini-development plans all in about 15 seconds. When the bidding slowed down, the auctioneer looked at the seller to check if the last offer was adequate. If not, the seller and buyer reluctantly made offers until the tree either sold or the next lot was brought in.
Sold trees were grouped by buyer on the ground – this is the part I helped with. As the event is fairly informal, the auctioneer mentioned the buyer’s name when handing me each tree. I then ran into the dark and found the appropriate cluster of trees.
The auction lasted about two hours and a lot of trees changed hands. Afterwards there was a mad dash to cram everything into vans ahead of sometimes long drives home.
The barker calls bids before a small crowd on a patch of dirt on a bright day in Inazawa, Aichi-ken. Lots speed by at a rate of two per minute. The trees are going fast.
Youkakai, or 8th day auction, is a local event held on the 8th day of each month at Kouyo-en. The proprieter, Mr. Takeshita, barks while runners scurry to keep up with the action. It’s quite an affair.
Although it is open to both professionals and non-professionals, the event is characterized by its regulars, bonsai nurserymen who frequently buy and sell at auctions across Japan. More formal events are only open to bonsai professionals. One such auction, Suiyoukai, or “Wednesday auction,” is managed by Japan’s association of bonsai professionals, the Nippon Bonsai Kyodokumiai, and held at the Green Club in Ueno each month.
The event couldn’t run any smoother. A makeshift roller plate between two roller tracks allows lots to move quickly. The auctioneers, Mr. Takeshita and a colleague, are familiar with tree values and call bids at predictable increments. There are no reserve values, but sellers are free to bid on their own lots to ensure trees sell for acceptable prices. When they don’t sell, sellers pay a commission based on the number where bidding stopped.
Lots for sale
Trees and pots on the block
As this is a local auction, prices can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, but there are exceptions. The stewartia below, for example, didn’t meet it’s owner’s minimum, and the auctioneer new better than to let the tree sell for the price at which the bidding stopped (I don’t recall the number).
Runners place lots at one end of the roller track and roll them toward the auctioneer. The auctioneer accepts bids and announces winning bids. A recorder tracks sales, and a second recorder creates tags for each lot indicating seller and buyer. Runners then group trees by buyer and catch a breath before grabbing the next tree.
Mr. Takeshita’s colleague accepting bids
The roller pad lets the auctioneer pivot trees with ease
Buyer number 1, seller number 120
Buyer number 4’s first purchase
Inexpensive items were often grouped together while more expensive trees were sold one at a time. Watching the trees breeze by made for a pleasant afternoon.
Pines for sale
The event was work, however, for the runners. I attended the auction with runner Peter Tea, apprentice to Junichiro Tanaka of Aichi-en in Nagoya and runner extraordinaire. Although the trident maple below wasn’t up for auction, a number of lots were of comparable size.
Peter Tea enjoying a large trident maple bonsai at Kouyo-en
I had the opportunity to attend the event with Peter and Mr. Tanaka as part of Aichi-en’s Bonsai Apprenticeship program, about which I’ll have plenty to say in coming weeks.