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.