The Case Of The Stolen Bonsai Trees
There’s a waterfall in the center of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. It flows into a pond where koi fish swim languidly, their bright colors swirling. Birds chirp. The cherry blossom trees recently bloomed, so the garden path is littered with delicate pink petals.
It’s all so peaceful and civilized. A refuge from the outside world.
Which is why it’s surprising that a few months ago, the garden was the scene of a crime.
Senior gardener Paul Johnson arrived to work first, before the Garden opened to the public. It was the week after Christmas, a busy time for the Garden. One of his morning tasks is to sweep the gravel from the path around the Garden’s bonsai exhibit, which is kept at the far end of the garden. It took him a moment to notice that there were gaps on the tables where the bonsai are displayed. “Wait a minute,” Johnson remembers realizing, “there’s a lot of stuff missing.”
Six of the Garden’s 19 bonsai trees were gone. Many of those trees were donated by members of the San Diego Bonsai Club, which has roughly 250 members. Most of the stolen trees were worth between $300 and $400 a piece.
The perimeter of the Garden is partially fenced in. The rest edges up against a steep canyon. Johnson has his theories as to how the bonsai crime was committed. “Possibly the way they did it was someone climbed over the fence and opened the gate from the inside and grabbed as many trees as they could,” Johnson said.
He says they could have also climbed up through the canyon but that would have been tough to do at night.
Johnson, like everyone interviewed for this story, believes it had to be more than one thief. Too many trees – heavy ones – were stolen and there must have been a vehicle available, probably a truck, to drive the trees away.
One of the trees was returned just days later, by a woman who found it next to a dumpster in the park. Johnson guesses the thieves didn't have enough room for it in their vehicle or it was forgotten.
The thieves tried to take the most valuable bonsai tree in the Garden’s collection: a 65-year-old Japanese Black Pine bonsai worth $2,500. It stands about four feet tall. Johnson could tell because the tray was askew and the dirt strewn about. “It’s quite heavy and takes three or four guys to carry it. They found out quickly it was too heavy to move,” Johnson said.
A police report was filed. That was three months ago. The Garden hasn’t heard back. Presumably, stolen bonsai trees are a low priority for law enforcement.
But for those who practice the art of bonsai, a crime like this is devastating.
The Bonsai Tradition
Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) are miniature, sculpted trees in pots or trays. In Japanese, “bon” means tray and “sai” means plant. The tradition dates back over a thousand years. There are multiple theories as to how the practice of creating miniature trees started. One is that Buddhist monks from China wanted to transport medicinal trees across great distances so they miniaturized them and placed them in trays.
If bonsai had a practical purpose, it likely always existed alongside an aesthetic one. Bonsai is often referred to as a living art form. “It’s a piece of art,” Johnson explained. “It’s like a sculpture. Somebody spent years taking care of it, shaping it and pruning it.”
The value of a bonsai tree is determined by many things: the age of the plant, the number of years it’s been a bonsai, the species, and elaborate standards of artistry involving everything from how far the first branch is from the root system, to how the roots actually spread.
It takes over a decade to grow and sculpt a bonsai properly. A bonsai artist may work with a tree for 25 years or longer, which is why the theft of a valuable bonsai tree is about a lot more than just money.
“It’s almost like somebody kidnapped one of your kids,” said Fred Miyahara, who’s been practicing bonsai since the late 80s. He’s a past president of the San Diego Bonsai Club and used to curate the collection at the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Miyahara says you come to know your bonsai trees like “you know your own children.” One of the bonsai Miyahara donated to the Garden was among the stolen.
Miyahara, a retired social worker, estimates he has close to 800 trees in his private collection. He cares for them every day, watering, pruning, and training the trees.
“Most people who do bonsai are introverts. They’re very quiet and like to work outside on their trees all by themselves,” Miyahara explained. “When you get one extroverted person, they usually become the club president,” he said laughing.
How Do You Get Rid Of A Van Gogh?
Miyahara says there are two likely scenarios when it comes to the recent theft at the Garden. If the trees were stolen by amateurs, they’ll probably be sold at swap meets or on online sites such as Ebay. I quickly scanned Ebay and found bonsai trees selling for $150 and $200. Miyahara says those trees will probably end up in someone’s home, on a coffee table, where they will die. It’s a common mistake to put the decorative trees inside. They only live outdoors.
In the other scenario, the thieves knew what they were doing.
“Other trees are taken because they know the value,” Miyahara said. “It’s like going into a museum and stealing a painting.”
Those trees are sold to collectors on the black market. Collectors will spend thousands of dollars on a quality bonsai tree. In 2011, a Chinese collector legally bought a 300-year-old white pine bonsai for just over a million dollars.
But when a valuable bonsai tree is stolen, one that’s obviously been sculpted for many years, it’s rarely recovered. It can’t be sold at auction or in industry shows because it might be recognized. “How do you get rid of a van Gogh?” Miyahara posited. “Everybody knows what that looks like.”
The bonsai community is small. There’s an expectation within bonsai culture that a seller will know the provenance of the bonsai. As a result, stolen, quality bonsai are lost to the community. “You just don’t see that plant anymore,” Miyahara said. “It’s in somebody’s collection in a backyard.”
The Garden’s Future Bonsai
Marisa Espinosa is the operations assistant at the Japanese Friendship Garden. She says they’ve experienced some vandalism in the past, but nothing like this. “I’ve been here for three and a half years. It’s the first incident of its type that we’ve had,” Espinoza said. “Where someone has intentionally committed that kind of crime.”
Espinosa says there’s a plan to upgrade security using video surveillance. The Garden is in the midst of expanding from 2.5 to 11 acres, encompassing the canyon below. On March 14th, the Garden received a $3 million donation from the former chairman of Japan Airlines toward that expansion. It is the largest donation in the Garden’s history.
Right now, the bonsai display is at the tail end of a visitor’s garden experience. Johnson says a member of the San Diego Bonsai Club recently wanted to donate more bonsai trees, but there wasn't enough space for his collection. Once the expansion opens, the bonsai exhibit may be moved to a larger area that could be more secure, Johnson said.
Miyahara has little hope of ever seeing the stolen bonsai trees again. He just hopes whoever has them is taking care of them.