Kurt Bell

A life of courage, joy and independence.

Becoming an antique dealer in Japan

Have you ever considered becoming an antique dealer in Japan? Here’s some information you might want to know. This is an email I just sent a businessman in the USA who contacted me asking about making connections with antique dealers in Japan.

“Hello XXXX,

Thanks for explaining your plan to get into the Japanese antique trade. I’d like to share what I learned after five years on the ground sourcing antiques in Japan. Perhaps you already know what I want to tell you though I’d like to share anyway for whatever good it might do.

Japanese Hannya mask

Japanese antique Hannya mask

As in the United States there are basically two main markets for antiques in Japan. The first is the wholesale market which is frequented by licensed dealers who directly source and purchase large quantities of items from Japanese households where the family is either demolishing the old farmhouse or where the grandparents have passed and the family wants to clear out space in the extra rooms or kura storehouse. These dealers get terrific bargains which you absolutely wouldn’t believe. This is due to the perception by most modern Japanese that anything old is trash and hardly worth holding onto let alone selling. In fact, whenever I visit our local dump I invariably spot people placing beautiful, hand-made wooden craft pieces and antiques onto the conveyor belt which leads to the incinerator. It breaks my heart ever time. Anyway, these first line dealers live a hard life and they are typically loosely associated with a pretty low-level form of Yakuza (harmless for the most part) who are managed and protected by more powerful leaders higher up the criminal food chain. Perhaps they aren’t all like this though most of the guys I worked with were. Many of these men live the life of the junkyard dealer, driving beat up old vans and wearing worn out clothes all the while chain smoking and drinking it up at night. They come back from excursions into the Japanese countryside with vans filled with goodies (amazing stuff if you get a chance to see) which they sell at twice-monthly (in our area at least) auctions to the next level dealers.

Japanese craftsman and antique dealer

Japanese craftsman and antique dealer

These second level dealers are from the big cities and they swoop in with wads of cash to attend the auction. They come in huge trucks with assistants such as loaders and drivers. They are treated like royalty by the first level guys. The second level dealers typically buy up for a song the goodies the first level guys have procured from the countryside. The dealers then drive home to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and elsewhere to sort and then sell their treasures to tourists and gullible Japanese from their fancy downtown antique stores. As you can imagine, the markup is astronomical (truly beyond belief sometimes) and the second level dealers make a fine living for themselves while the first level guys struggle to get by. If you want to play in this game and make a profit you’ll do best to figure out how to get involved with the first level-dealers. This means you’ll be competing with the heavyweights but you won’t be forced to pay the huge markup you’d need to give them if you bought the stuff at their retail stores.

This all might sound like an easy enough strategy though there are two difficulties you’ll need to overcome to make this happen. First, you’ll need to find such an association. You can do this by going to any antique flea market in Japan and asking around. Many of the guys at the flea markets here are part of one of those first-level groups and if you can befriend them they might help you to get involved. Sometimes there’s a leader at the flea market who might have a great-looking booth and perhaps a small tent setup somewhere for the local guys to take a break in. If you find him, this is the guy you need to impress as he holds the keys to access this world. I know the guy in our area and he’s wonderfully friendly in a rough and macho kinda way though I’d be lying if I told you he didn’t scare me just a little.

Antique Japanese roof tile

Antique Japanese roof tile

Getting inside such an organization is probably going to be a little tough as these men are usually very conservative and suspicious of outsiders and often their auctions can only be attended by licensed dealers (Here in XXXX you get your license from the local police headquarters though you may need the help of the group to get it. In this way membership is a bit of a closed circle). I got very lucky when I first came to Japan (and before I became an antique dealer) in accidentally meeting the adult son of an auction house owner who invited me to attend their auctions which I did twice a month for almost five years. I’d offer to introduce you to the group though I’ve lost all contact with them and would feel very uncomfortable trying to restart our relationship after so long in absence. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing but I just don’t feel I’d be welcome there again as I left with no explanation or warning and never bothered to keep up with even my closest friends from the group (I’ve run into a few of them since leaving and I definitely felt the cold air between us). As for leaving like I did, frankly, I was ashamed and humiliated about my business failure and this is the reason I was so hesitant to go back. But enough about me. If you decide to get into this game I hope that the information I have provided might prove helpful. It’s a good, viable and potentially very profitable business line if you’ve got the smarts to make it work (which I clearly didn’t). As a final bit I’ll share a link below where you can hear the story (if you are curious) about the night I met and was invited into the home of the big boss of the Yakuza in our area who ran the antique auction business from afar. Please let me know if you have any other questions as I’m always happy to try and help.

Sincerely,

-Kurt :-)”

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4 comments on “Becoming an antique dealer in Japan

  1. Nicholas
    October 15, 2013

    Hi Kurt,
    Are you still in Japan plying the antiques?
    Exporting may not be the Golden Fleece at the moment.
    The Japanese are currently buying large numbers of old industrial lighting from European dealers.
    I am based in Eastern Europe and one of the main suppliers to these dealers.
    Potential for us missing out the middle men?
    Look at trainspotters and skinflint in the uk or 360volt or neef louis from holland to get an idea.
    It sounds like we have been doing similar things over the last few years albeit in rather different spots(:-
    Cheers
    Nicholas

  2. Troy
    December 29, 2013

    Interesting story!

    If my google-fu is good, the underworld leader you met is the one of the few whose actions were news-worthy enough to have previously reached my limited cognizance.

  3. ANTOINE DERBOIS
    January 3, 2017

    Hi Kurt,

    Hope you’re still running this blog. Thank you for this report, it’s very interesting !
    I have a few questions about getting a authentic dealer certification to attend used branded bags auctions, and a few ones about this business in general.

    Would you have time for me ?

    Looking forward to your answer,

    Antoine

  4. Antoine
    March 20, 2017

    Hey Kurt,

    Did you read my message ?

    Thank you,

    Antoine

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