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Getting the Most Out of Your Club Auction

By Will Heath, USA
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Most clubs have an annual auction where members bring items they no longer have a need for, no longer want, or that they can not personally see a future for. These auctions serve many purposes, as they are not only a place where members can sell items they do not want, but also a place where members can pick up items they do want at highly discounted prices.

These auctions also serve to beef up the bank account of the sponsoring club, as most auctions are based on some sort of a program where the proceeds for a sale are split between the seller and the club. This can be a 50/50 split, a 70/30 split or a total donation of all proceeds to the club depending on the wishes of the seller.

As a buyer you have a unique opportunity to purchase items that you need or want at prices far below retail with no shipping charges attached. Auctions present an opportunity to acquire species you do not have, build your library, get pots, tools, or other related items as well. Unlike on-line auctions and sales, club auctions give you the opportunity to see, feel, and touch items in person before deciding to buy them.

In the first section I will explain how I buy at these auctions and the logic behind my methods. I tend to do quite well at auctions and love attending them. I will post some pictures of my purchases I made at a recent club auction to show the wide range of items offered and the varying quality of stock available.

Set A Total Spending Allowance

Before you go to an auction you should set a total spending allowance for your trip. Whatever the price may be, take that amount of money and no more, then challenge yourself to spend less. I take cash to auctions and never a checkbook; this eliminates all temptations to over spend and makes me a much smarter buyer.

Get There Early

I always arrive early to auctions, this way I can help out with the setup and checking in of all the items, in fact it is a wise idea to volunteer for this chore beforehand. By doing so, you can personally see and handle each item that is going to be sold and decide on the ones you wish to bid on later.

Set Your Maximum Price

While you are there early and looking at the items that will be sold, write down what you would figure to be a bargain price, I carry a notebook for this purpose. I spend enough time in the local bonsai shops and nurseries to know the value of stock, pots, etc. so I can gage value pretty good. I write down a price that would be a good bargain and then later when bidding, I will not go over that price.

Nobody Loses

You bid on an item right up to your set price for it and the bids go higher still...stop, it is going for more than you appraised it for earlier before the heat of the auction got under way. No big deal, at the worst you bidded up the price and helped out the club, wait for the next item.

The Prices Get Better Toward The End

When the first items go up for bid, the bidding is fast and furious. Everyone has money in their pockets and the excitement is fresh so the items sell for high prices, sometimes more than one would pay retail. Hope that the items you want don't come out first. I personally feel that bonsai clubs should put the worse, hardest to sell items first on the schedule, why they do not do this is beyond me.

As the auction progresses, people have reached their budget, the bidding slows down and the bids are less. This is the time where the bargains start happening.

Don't Pass Up A Steal

This year I picked up seven two foot tall Japanese Maples and five overgrown yews for one dollar each, bid up from 50 cents. I have no real use for these items but I know the resale value in a couple years will be many times greater than the dollar each that I paid. In fact, these items will eventually pay for my whole auction cost.

Listen and Pay Attention

Bidding at an auction can be fast paced and often an item is sold for an extremely low price before you know what is happening. A trip to the bathroom once cost me a very nice refined Black Pine that was worth a few hundred bucks, it sold for 20 dollars. I'll wet my pants before that happens again.

Be A Good Sport

Never brag about the steal you got at the auction while you are there. The person who I got the five yews from for a dollar each came up to me just sick because he spent a long time digging them up. I simply agreed with him and stated that I couldn't believe how cheap they went for, what a shame no one could see the potential.

Thank every seller you bought from and be sure to mention how grateful you are that they brought such nice material to sell. Always mention how much the club benefits from their efforts.

Dancing on the table tops while laughing like a maniac is not recommended.

This year I set an auction budget of a price that I won't mention yet, instead I'll share my purchases with you and let you guess the total amount spent.

Here are my purchases...

20 back issues of Bonsai Today and a signed Kimura book as well as the first edition of International Bonsai.

Signature of Kimura in a brand new copy of his book.

Privet sp.

Pots including some very nice Mame pots

Another view of the pots

River Birch





Some smaller trees including the Japanese Maples and overgrown Yews, there are also Honey Locust, Privets, and other species mixed in.

Close up of one of the Yew trunks, amazing possiblities.

And that completes the purchases I made at our annual club action. I came well within my initial set budget and obtained some of the items I wanted as well as a few that should pay for this trip when sold. Total price for all items shown above came below $175.00.

In the next section, I will explain how I sell at these auctions and the logic behind my methods. This knowledge not only helps me to get rid of stock and materials that I have no use for personally, but also puts money back into my pocket that I use to cover other bonsai expenses.


So you have a few items laying around that you have no need for or your better half has been begging you to clear out enough room in the yard so they can at least see a few blades of grass. Maybe you have a few trees that you can not see a future for or more cuttings and young stock than an Arbor Day rally.

Your club auction is a excellent place to sell these items while spending some time with local bonsaist as well as helping out your club by donating a percentage of your proceeds to it.

Some tips for you from my personal experiences at auctions.

  1. Wash and oil your pots, the better they look on the block, the more people will bid for them.
  2. Give your trees a light trimming. This is not the time to hard prune but taking the long shoots off to refine the silhouette will make the tree more attractive.
  3. Weed your soil and put a fresh topping of soil on top of the old crusty stuff.
  4. Place a label in the pot listing species and common name as well as the last date it was potted. Any history of the tree will also be appreciated by the new owner.
  5. Place a label inside of empty pots naming the maker and history if known.
  6. Stay away from grouping items together unless they are a match set usually sold together. Group items tend to bring lower prices for each item than if sold separately.
  7. Talk to the buyers and let them know all you know about the item they bought, congratulate them and thank them.

Following the above guidelines will not only bring in greater bids for your items but also give you a reputation as a neat, organized bonsaist who takes great care of his trees and stuff. This will automatically raise the value in the future of anything you sell.

One other tip... Get on the mailing lists and join other clubs in your area if you can. This can increase the number of auctions you can shop or sell at.

Will Heath is an editor and co-founder of,, a moderator at, and the show chairman and web manager of the Four Seasons Bonsai Club in Michigan. His educational articles and humorous stories have been published in Bonsai Today, the ABS Journal, on forums and in newsletters around the world.

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