Interview with Koryu-kai: Take a Glimpse of Auction Culture in Japan

Nara, located in the Kansai region of Japan, is best known to tourists for its large group of roaming deer. The Value took a trip to Kansai earlier and found a secluded auction held in a suburb hotel. Though not widely known by the general public, the auction house, Koryu-kai, has made its name to many collectors, whether from Japan or other countries, as a trove full of hidden gems. It has earned considerable reputation in the industry in merely six years since it was founded. What's its secret to success? We talk to Otani Hiroshi and Miyagi Shunsuke, representatives for Koryu-kai.

Q: How did you start working as an art dealer in Chinese antiques?

Otani Hiroshi, Representative for Koryu-kai

Otani: I am 64 years old. I have worked as an antiques dealer for more than 40 years ago. I have been interested in old and ancient artworks. That’s why I wanted to get into this industry.

Miyagi Shunsuke, Representative for Koryu-kai

Miyagi: I am 37 years old. I met Mr. Otani when I was 20. Since then I have been learning from him and started working in this field.

Q: Why did you found this auction house Koryu-kai?

Otani: Chinese antiques have been very important in this industry. Many items that I sold in my shop were Chinese antiques. A Chinese friend of mine once told me to hold an auction in Nara because there are auctions in Tokyo and Kyoto, but not in Nara. I was fascinated by the idea so I started my auction business in Nara.

Q: Does the name Koryu-kai have any meaning?

Otani: Among all art genres, I’m particularly fond of ancient works. It is an auction for Chinese antiques and “dragon” is a mythical yellow Chinese animal. So I decided to go with “Koryu”, meaning “ancient dragon”. “Kai” stands for auction. That’s why I named the company “Koryu-kai”. There are other auction houses with similar names.

Speaking of auctions in Japan, Tokyo and Koyto are two most popular places drawing many interested parties every year. Why did koryu-kai set its base in Nara? How did Otani and Miyagi build their clientele? 

Q: Why is the auction held in Nara?

Otani: That Chinese friend of mine has an extensive network in antiques dealing. He had already chosen Nara when he presented the idea to me. Since we were both born and raised in Nara, we studied here and we have a sense of belonging. That’s why we chose Nara to hold auctions.

Q: How do customers know Koryu-kai in the first place? Is it through friend referrals?

Otani: We had built a clientele of Chinese art lovers from our shop so they were our target customers when we first started. And later through friend referrals, we have made our name in the industry. This is our 12th auction, soon coming to its 6th year. It attracts more participants than the previous one. We are also becoming more professional and experienced and hence attract some new customers. They come here after hearing some positive reviews about us. That’s how we develop into a quite popular auction house.

Q: Have you encountered the problem of buyers not settling payment?

Otani: We have heard about it but this problem has not yet occurred in our auctions. They have all settled the payment. It is probably because our customers come here through friend referrals. For new customers buying high-value items, we ensure they can pay such a high amount of money. 

Koryu-kai offered over 2000 items all at once without any categorization at the sale. It is different from what we normally see in major auction events, in which various works of art are presented at different sales.

Q: Why did you offer all lots together at one sale, instead of by categories?

Otani: In fact, auctions held in Japan targeting Japanese buyers usually put all kinds of items together at one sale. It seems unnatural if we separate items by categories. We know it is different from the practice in the West but Chinese customers may find it interesting. We will see how it goes and consider different practice if necessary.

Q: How did you secure consignments?

Otani: All items offered are collected from within Japan. A lot of fine Chinese works of art were transferred here and then preserved in Japan from a few hundred years ago, or even two thousand years ago. In Nara, there are many treasures handed down from the Ming Dynasty. And some of our customers come all the way to Japan for such antiques so we have not thought of seizing consignments elsewhere, like Hong Kong. Maybe it is different from other auction houses. But that’s what attracts Chinese customers.

Q: How many staff in your company? How did they obtain related knowledge?

Otani: We have only around 4 to 5 people. But we are able to pull off an auction of such scale with the assistance from associations formed by influential figures in the industry. That’s what makes us stand out from other auction houses. Members of the associations are all antique aficionados in 30 to 40 years old. They are enthusiastic about learning and seizing consignments and they offer Chinese works of art that they found to be sold at our auction. We also find some Chinese antiques from old houses in Japan. These are the two main sources of seizing consignments.

Q: What is your most favourite kind of antique?

Otani: To be honest, I don’t favour particular one over others. But I am more familiar with ceramics, lacquers, Buddhist sculptures and tea sets.

Miyagi: I don’t have a favourite either. I like all fine works.

Q: If you could only collect one treasure in your lifetime, what would you choose?

Otani: I can’t pick one since there are so many great works of art.

Miyagi: I have never thought about it. That’s a tough question. I guess I wouldn’t necessarily choose expensive works. I am hoping to meet a work that I love at the first sight, though I still haven’t found one.

Q: What’s the preference of customers in Asia? Anything on trend lately?

Otani: In the past, we could still generalize customers’ preference by regions but their taste is getting more personal. Customers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing show different preferences.

Otani (continue): Incense burner was pretty popular among collectors. But the delivery is not easy due to its huge size. Lately, we also see unprecedented popularity in lacquers, tea sets, Buddhist paintings and religious text.

Q: What’s the future plan for the company?

Otani: So far, we have no plan to enter Hong Kong or Beijing markets. We want to take it slow and enjoy the process. We are going to hold two auctions every year, maybe we will move to Tokyo. But we take this as an opportunity to learn and to show artworks to our partners and friends. That’s it.