As I read Sean Smith’s article on suiseki a few weeks ago, it really prompted me to think seriously about why we were are attracted to certain bonsai pots and others we just look at and walk away.  Let us take a minute to say that this post is our own viewpoint.  We realize that for each of you the categories may be different, the selection criteria, even the sensibility of how much to spend on a pot is unique per buyer.  Nevertheless, we think this is an interesting topic and one that we hope will generate some discussion on our blog.
We began to categorize how we think about the pots that we purchase and those categories are:
•    Color, texture and age
•    Shape and practical use
•    Cost
•    The artist

How is it then that we can virtually glance at a pot and instantly know if we like it or not?  Over time does our viewpoint change in regards to the beauty or even usability of a certain pot? So let’s take a few minutes to explore these characteristics and to discuss what we think about them.

Color, Texture & Patina

Tofukuji

Tofukuji

Our first pot for discussion is this very famous Tofukuji pot using a green glaze.  We have seen numerous pots that use a glaze close to this pot.  Here is an example of two pots using green glaze, how do they visually impact you? What feelings, if any, do you have when you look at these two pots?

Pot Comparison

Pot Comparison

Both pots are high quality.  The one on the left, if it could be purchased, would in our estimation run around ~$10,000 US and the one on the right around $250 US.  We will talk about pricing variables later.

The Tofukuji pot has a wonderful patina created after many years of use.  The glaze is expertly applied, and the shape of the pot is nice but we doubt that it has many practical applications for bonsai?  Perhaps as an accept plant? Perhaps a small deciduous cascade?  We don’t see too many practical applications for this pot, but we would add that we would trade every single pot in our collection for this one pot!

Why might you ask, other than those that assume it would be due to stupidity?  To us this pot symbolizes the essence of artistic beauty in a bonsai pot.  The shape of the pot is pleasing to the eye.  The colors harmonize extremely well.  The glaze application is outstanding.

The second pot is a good pot. Nice shape, good glaze and made from high quality clay. Could we use it? Absolutely.  Does it compare favorably above the Tofukuji? Absolutely not.

One of the reasons we love suiseki, is that we can hold in our hand or view in a display a small stone that represents nature in a significantly larger way – visually.  A small 14cm stone might represent an incredible distant mountain range.  What is required for the mind’s eye to translate this 14cm stone to a visual vista representing this dynamic, large but yet distant mountain range?  Our imagination and memory recall of past visual acuity.

Suiseki - Mountain Rang

Suiseki – Mountain Range

The thing that separates these two pots above for us first and foremost is that the Tofukuji pot sets our imagination ablaze.  We look at this pot and think of viewing a forest shrouded in fog.  The immediate connection between the forest and the purpose of this pot is clear – it is for vegetation or trees.  The pot is inviting yet somehow distant and mysterious.  How many of you have looked upon a distant mountain range at sunset and this same range of emotions was felt? Distant and mysterious but yet somehow inviting!

We have seen many new pots attempt to evoke the same feeling with most of them attempting to copy the look and feel of a Tofukuji pot.  Why then do so many of them fail?

Perhaps it partially has to do with the lack of patina in new pots.  This is certainly no more evident than looking at the differences between a new pot and an old, very used pot that displays years and years of patina.

Look at these next two photographs and think about how these pots. What do you sense about the first pot versus the second?

To us the bottom pot is a nice shape, decent glaze but evokes almost no emotion whatsoever.  The upper pot provides an almost immediate sense of emotions and feelings: Age, beauty, patina, value are the words that come to mind.  How many times the owner must have set before it watering whatever it contained. The number of months it may have set on a bench enduring the cold of winter and the heat of summer and the care given to the pot to keep it from being broken or damaged.

Frankly the bottom pot from a shape point of view is likely more usable for bonsai but which would you put into your collection? Easy decision for us – the first one!

Shape and Practical Use

How many of you are disciplined enough to only purchase pots to match trees in your collection? For those of you that said “yes” congratulations we believe you are in the minority.  Many of us are attracted to pots and then hope we can find a tree to match it.  Is this the most efficient use of capital?  Of course not.  So why then do so many of us have a pot-to-tree ratio that is 2:1 or 3:1? Are we that foolish with our money? Have sufficient amounts of money that it doesn’t matter anyway?  Frankly the answer is no.  What we do know is that most of us like to collect pots that catch our attention.  Maybe it is just the nature of humans to collect things we like.

Bonsai pots come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors.  So what is it about these three things that make us want to shell out some hard cash and take it home.  Certainly, some of us collect pots to create a collection.  Others purchase pots in the hope they will be used.  Some just buy them to buy them.  All of these reasons are valid but perhaps there is something about this endless, or needless, collecting.

When we first got into bonsai we purchased a lot of trees. I mean a lot of trees.  How many of them do you think we have now?  I can tell you – one.  Our first one.  All the others are long gone. I think most of you know why.  They were inexpensive, met our need at the time, and as we gained experience the realization came to us that almost none of them could be turned into good bonsai. So we did like most people, we sold them at auction or the club show to people who were at the stage we were years ago – new to bonsai and wanting to collect trees without spending too much money driven by the fear that they would just kill them!

So how do pots fit into this category of thinking?  Much in the same way as our first “comma” tree; a tree that cost over $1,000.  I think many of us have purchased way too many pots to collect them but frankly many of these pots are of low quality and a price point to match.  Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with this strategy.  What we begin to ask though is it better to purchase say five pots at $50 or one really good pot for $250.  We side on the later.  But we digress – we will come back to this issue of money shortly.

With pots coming in all shapes, sizes, and colors, how does one decide what to collect or purchase?  Does our taste improve over time?  We believe so.  We have been involved in studying pots now for almost ten years.  When I mean studying pots I mean studying pots. From researching on the web to buying almost any bonsai pot books we could get our hands upon.  Matching a tree to a pot in our opinion is both science and an art.  Most people understand the science (size, shape) but frankly very few people understand the art.  How does the color match the tree? Does it assist or overwhelm?  Do the colors, shape and size harmonize with the tree?

When we visit bonsai shows the thing that we see most often is that the pot is not correctly sized to the tree or vice-versa.  It is critical to match not just the color (glaze or unglazed), and the width/depth/height but is it an old tree – that requires an old pot – or a newer tree – which can take a newer pot.  Is this too legalistic – not if you view what is shown in Japan.  Again, there is nothing wrong with putting the best pot we can afford on the best tree we can afford. For many of us this means a new pot with a not so old tree.

To place this idea of old pot-old tree into perspective.  How would a 250 year old Redwood look in a Wal-mart parking lot?  Perhaps a tad out of place.  Therefore why would anyone put a 75 year old black pine in a 1 year old pot with zero patina?  Well certainly the lack of money to purchase an older pot is a good reason, but if you walk into your garden, greenhouse or backyard I challenge you to count the number of pots that you either don’t need or are not as good as you might hope and then count the cost of those pots.  My guess is that most of us had we saved our money could in fact afford a nice old pot for that 75 year old black pine.

So our point is this: I would rather only have five good/great trees in my collection with five great pots than have 40-50 or more trees and 100 just so-so pots.

Let’s take a look at one of our antique pots and what was one of our bonsai until it sold last year and talk about shape.

Bay Island Bonsai 2008 - Shimpaku Juniper in a antique Chinese pot

Bay Island Bonsai 2008 – Shimpaku Juniper in a antique Chinese pot

We believe this pot harmonizes with this tree. This Shimpaku is 35-40 years old and the pot is estimated at around 150 years old. It is an antique Chinese pot; the front-side of the pot has handwriting on it but for this show we elected to reverse the pot when placing the tree in it.

The color is excellent and so is the patina.  The size matches the size of the tree.  Not too small and not too large – just about right.  This color of the pot really goes well with the live vein of the tree. This pot doesn’t compete with this tree – at least in our opinion – but it does add greatly to the overall “look and feel” to this setup.

There are many pots this tree can go into and they can be a good match but the question we always force ourselves to ask is it the best? Believe me we tried many combinations of pots before making this decision.  Is it the right shape? Is it the right color? Does it have the right patina? Well you decide.  All of this is a very personal decision.  BTW, a few people who saw this setup didn’t like it.  That is OK with us too.

It is critically important in selecting a pot that you match the size to the tree.  That the pot’s color and shape also harmonize with the tree.  We could have used a rectangular pot for this tree – and it would have looked just fine.  However, we had something particular in mind. We wanted this tree to look as if it was high on a hill or a rocky mountain point.  It gives us the same feeling of seeing a tree in the Sierras – Proud, sturdy, strong and yet still graceful with a touch of nature’s softness.

The Price of an Excellent Pot

Another firestorm might be created here as well. Well can we define excellent?  I will let you do that with your own criteria.  We define excellent as something we truly love regardless of the price.  We have several Bunzan pots that we consider quite beautiful.

Bunzan

Bunzan

This glaze is excellent.  We love drum pots and the size works well for small trees or accents.  Is it expensive? No.  This pot retailed for 3,300 Yen or back then about $33 plus shipping.  So does it’s cost disqualify it from being an excellent pot? Absolutely not!

We would like to think that at some distant point in the future Buzan’s pots will begin to demand significantly higher prices than they do today.  About five years ago we discovered shohin pots by Ryuen Kamiya.  We really loved the size and shape of his pots so over the next two years we purchased seven of them.  They weren’t inexpensive at $200-300 per pot; which seemed to us a lot of money for small shohin pots.  We always believed though that these pots would increase in value over time. Just a few years ago he retired and guess what – some of those pots now command $900-1500.

It often reminds us of what it must have been like around Tofukuji’s kiln say 70 years or more ago.  How many times he might have thought – why aren’t the prices of my beautiful pots demanding more money?  Oh how he would smile today to see how many of them are stored away in that secret place in the home or in the heart of those that only wish they could purchase one or two.  We readily admit there are a few that we would love to own.  However, spending $3-7,000 for a small pot is still out of our reach.

Well then how about this Kouzan pot?

Kouzan

Kouzan

This is a wonderful pot, strong but yet somehow evoking a soft feeling.  We believe this is principally because of the feet and the soft turn at the top of the pot.   Both pots have good form.  Excellent glazes and are high in usability.  We would classify both as excellent.  However, with the price difference between these pots (Bunzan and Kouzan) about $2,000, does this $2,000 price differential mean we value the Bunzan any less – no.

Next what about excellent non-glazed pots – so here are a couple of them.

Tofukuji

Tofukuji

Tokoname Pot

Tokoname Pot

Nice form for both pots.  Radically different uses for these pots due to the size but both with nice clay, feet, and color. Cost of the top pot is $900 the bottom pot $185.  Our point is this – price does play a part in obtaining an excellent pot but it isn’t the driving factor.

So what then does drive the cost of some if not all bonsai pots?

The Artist

Many factors can go into why pots are expensive: difficult shapes, large sizes, very small sizes, hand painted scenes, rarity, age, patina, desirability and lastly and most importantly the artist.

We admit that age is a significant factor in the cost of a pot.  You are simply not going to purchase an antique pot for the same price you might purchase an equivalent Tokoname pot even if there is no artist mark on the bottom of the antique pot.

We believe a significant factor in cost is who made the pot.

Yusen

Yusen

This pot by Yusen would retail for ~5,500 US or with the current exchange rate perhaps a tad higher.  Why? Well first it is a Yusen pot – one of the most collectible of all shohin bonsai pots.  His artistry is almost unparalleled.  Just look at this scene above.  Really look at it.  We see several things in this scene.

The person on the bow is silently gazing at the sun over the distant mountain tops.  Perhaps his is resting after having rowed the other occupants of this craft across the river on this steamy August day.  There is a  couple sitting and chatting in the cool breeze and shade of this rocky outcrop with trees.  This scene imparts serenity, nature, and peacefulness.

Why do we need this elegant of a pot a pot just to hold a tree?  Good question.  If one can harmonize the tree with this pot, how spectacular is that going to be?  Also, think about it.  If you have a pot in this price range, or for most of us say in the price range of $250-300.  We likely don’t want our tree in it all year. We might want it just for our yearly bonsai show.  So for the rest of the year where does it go then – in a closet? Back into a kiri-bako?  No way, on a display shelf in our home where we can see it and appreciate it every day, or to be brought out once a year to be displayed for that special occasion.

The Kouzan pot above (blue one) has never been used for a tree.  We bring it out once per year where it is on display for one month.  January of every year it takes a place of honor in our home.  That is our personal pattern with this pot.  It is how we gain the most appreciation for it.  Like a distant friend we look forward to seeing it and then it goes away until the next visit.

Great and important pots, in our opinion, have many things.  The right form, color, and feel!  While at the same time holding or owning a pot by one of the greatest bonsai pots makers adds considerably to its value for us.  Does it necessarily make it an excellent pot? We don’t think so. I have seen some Tofukuji pots that made me remark “perhaps too much saki the night before?”  No disrespect intended to him but not all pots made by Tofukuji were beautiful or excellent.

Certainly as in most art forms, the artist can sometimes demand significantly higher prices than his counterparts simply because she/he is well known or has a great reputation.  Often it is because these pots are highly sought after because they are of such high quality.

Tofukuji and Yusen’s pots are immediately recognizable.  To us instantly recognizable.  How many Tokoname pots that you see or even own that you can immediately recognize who made this pot?  I would wager very few unless you turn them over and see the artist mark and then many still wouldn’t know.

So why can we recognize potters like Kouzan, Tofukuji and Yusen?  It is because their style is so identifiable.  With Kouzan it is his ability to have strong pots but that impart softness.  With Tofukuji it is his mastery of glazes.  With Yusen it is his incredible talent to paint beautiful scenes.

Now couple the beauty of these pots, add years of patina and age, and lastly find not a crack or chip and what do you have?  You have a very valuable pot, wanted by many, owned by few and appreciated by most.

In Closing

We realize this post is a bit wordy but we hope it conveys several things to you. First and foremost we love bonsai pots. Secondly, and more importantly, please evaluate the need to purchase good but not great bonsai pots.  Attempt to save your money and then enjoy the moment when you find that excellent pot to purchase.  Find the joy in bringing it home and setting it in a place of honor in your home.  And then use it with your trees at that next show or private showing in your garden.

I look back at the hundreds of pots we have purchased over the years, many given away to friends or those in need of a pot, and we have thought – hmm! Had we not purchased those ten pots at $30 each we could have purchased one more Ryuen pot for our collection.

We don’t have regrets but we have learned our lesson.  We are very particular about pots we purchase.  It has to meet one of two specific needs: It is worthy to be in our collection and/or is it perfect for a tree we own.

Well it is up to you and what you enjoy.  We can say however that we love the high quality and excellent pots in our collection.  We have a display case full of them and every time we walk past them there is pleasure derived from seeing them.

We hope this post was enjoyable – even though a bit long.  Sam and KJ

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