It was never going to be easy to penetrate the bamboo curtain that hides Japanese auctioneers from the outside world. I knew that the majority of art was traded through a system of "closed" auctions, run by dealers for dealers, and than no information about them ever trickled out. In Tokyo business is concentrated at the Tokyo Bijitsu Club, which in the Bubble economy period had invested in a very handsome 5 floor building, all glass and marble, in Shinbashi. Every day in one of its plushy rooms, dealers gather to buy and sell their kit.
I innocently thought that I could just go along and watch one. "Very difficult," murmured a dealer friend. So I started by asking a well-known art dealer, herself President of one of the dealer associations. Whiplash-thin and always impeccably dressed, Hasegawa-san was delighted to explain the Japanese auction system to me. But get me into one? She stroked the back of her neck. "You should ask one of the other Presidents," she advised "There is a special one next month. Perhaps you could just look in for 5 minutes, discretely."
Which is how I found myself perched, some days later, on a Renaissance fantasy of a chair, with leather upholstery, sugar-barley uprights and elaborate scrollwork. The only difference was the size - almost miniature - and height off the ground. My knees were well above my waist. "The whole set used to be in one of the best geisha houses in Tokyo, they were made specially in Tokyo." explained Nishiura san, proudly, President of "Peach Group". "I bought them at auction and they wouldnt fit into my home, so I keep them in my gallery." We sipped green tea and I admired the chairs.
Finally I asked if I could attend the special auction. "Out of the question," he stated with a finality that allowed no appeal. My heart sank. There seemed nothing to do but finish my tea politely, admire his hanging scrolls and continue my quest elsewhere.
But to my surprise Nishiura san called me back some days later. Still no question of attending the special sale, but he would let me in, "just for a few minutes", to one of his everyday sessions.
So on a chilly November day I stepped past the sliding glass door at the Tobi auction rooms, exchanged my shoes for slippers, and found myself in a world far removed from the gilded efficiency of Sothebys or Christies.
There are no splashy previews, expensive hardback catalogues or even estimates in a Tobi session. All you see, heaped on the ground, often wrapped in furoshiki, are wooden cases containing ceramics, scroll paintings or metalwork. More items are stacked in flat black lacquered boxes proclaiming Tobi in blazing red characters. These are shunted around the floor, in a long conga, by bidders seated cross-legged on cushions. Large items, screens for example, are unfolded against a wall for a few minutes and a general melee ensues as buyers struggle to get a look before they are put up for sale.
You only have a few seconds in which to examine the piece, condition, seals and so on. And the auction can go on for 6 hours, its terribly tiring, to stay concentrated," notes a Tobi habitue.
The auctioneer, a lively fellow wearing a red apron, wades right into the group to start the bidding. But from then on, unlike the Western system where the auctioneer milks the audience to get the highest possible price, the Japanese buyers continue on their own. Only if something falls short of the reserve does the auctioneer intervene - by simply asking the vendor - who is present - what he or she would accept. The vendor can lower the price or withdraw the item - but for a 5% charge. Some time-honoured traditions are also preserved, such as the kuji rope - a whip-like instrument that is used to select the winner when a number of bidders name the same price.
As each piece is sold the vendor is paid, cash, immediately, from an immense stack of banknotes held by a stalwart lady sitting at a makeshift table. The buyer has 1 - 2 months to pay, Tobi carrying the difference - and taking 3-4% from the seller as commission.
These kai, or gatherings, are a closed world rarely penetrated by outsiders. They are run by dealers, for dealers; membership is limited and by introduction only. Once admitted, a new member puts up a bond of 8 million yen ($75,000). There are various kai depending on the dealers field of specialisation, and they number from 50 to 300 members.
Within each group, smaller syndicates are formed, and they are mutually responsible for each others debts. Chieko Hasegawa explains, "we support each other, but we also have to watch each other."
Each kai meets about once a month and members attend to both buy and sell. A very few Japanese-speaking foreign dealers are members; others can ask a member for an invitation. "It is a typically Japanese system, very personal, based on doing business together in harmony. It protects the art market, maintains prices and keeps everyone in business. It works for everybody," comments a Tokyo-based American dealer.