'Priceless' Bonsai Trees Stolen From Museum In Washington State

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 5:53 pm

Two historic bonsai trees have been stolen, and the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, Wash., is putting out a call to get them back.

"These are priceless treasures that belong to our community. And their stories deserve to be preserved and shared broadly," museum Executive Director Kathy McCabe tells NPR. "So please bring them back."

Around 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, two thieves forced their way into the public display of the museum and made off with two roughly 50-pound bonsai: a Japanese black pine and a silverberry.

"It looked like they knew what they were doing," McCabe says.

Aarin Packard, the museum's curator, says it "seemed to be more of a professional, professional-level theft."

They don't know why the thieves did it. "It's impossible to understand the motivation, particularly when you get to know the stories of these trees," McCabe says.

Both trees are relatively young as far as bonsai go, but still have a rich history going back to the time of World War II.

The Japanese black pine was grown by Japanese American Juzaburo Furuzawa. While he was incarcerated in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, during World War II, he received Japanese black pine seeds from family members in Japan. He started growing trees in tin cans. The bonsai at the Pacific Bonsai Museum is possibly the only one of that group to still be alive.

"I'm not familiar with any other tree that exists in the United States that can trace its provenance to being germinated in an internment camp during the war," Packard says. The tree was eventually acquired by one of Furuzawa's students, who donated it to the museum in the early 1990s.

The silverberry was created by a female bonsai artist, Kiyoko Hatanaka, in 1946. Female bonsai artists were historically less common than male ones, which makes this tree rare. It was stolen on Sunday from a museum just outside Seattle.
Courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum

The silverberry was cultivated by Kiyoko Hatanaka beginning in 1946. She and her husband were bonsai enthusiasts in Southern California. Silverberry is a common species for bonsai but is less common in the U.S. because it is more of a Japanese species, Packard says.

But what's particularly notable about the silverberry is that it was cultivated by a female bonsai artist.

"Bonsai's predominantly been a male activity, at least in Japanese culture where ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, was sort of what the women would practice. And so for a woman to be doing bonsai in the late '40s or mid-'40s is also rare," Packard says.

A lot of the bonsai in the U.S. date to the 1940s and 1950s. Bonsai culture in the U.S. prior to World War II was only practiced by Japanese Americans; it was later that non-Japanese began cultivating them, he says.

That the two trees have survived more than 70 years already is a testament to the dedication of generations of bonsai artists. Caring for the trees requires daily attention, much like a pet, Packard says. "That consistency of care is so essential to keeping them healthy and around for 75 years." Some bonsai trees are passed on through generations of a family and can live for hundreds of years.

The museum isn't saying how much these particular trees are worth, only that they are worth thousands of dollars. The museum's staff say they won't ask questions if someone can help locate the trees and are asking the public to contact them with any leads. The trees could die within a week if not properly cared for.

"You fall in love with these trees, they become a part of your family and they're passed on from generation to generation, from teacher to student," says McCabe. "And so they have such deep meaning that it goes beyond the monetary value."

NPR's Noah Caldwell, Elena Schwartz and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Now for the story of a heist. Over the weekend, a security alarm was triggered at the Pacific Bonsai Museum just outside of Seattle.

KATHY MCCABE: At about 7 a.m. on Sunday, two thieves forced their way into the public display.

SHAPIRO: That's Kathy McCabe, the executive director at the museum, which is home to 150 bonsai trees.

MCCABE: We discovered that two trees had been stolen.


Two bonsai trees, each more than 70 years old, weighing around 50 pounds. Soon, Aarin Packard, the exhibit's curator, showed up.

AARIN PACKARD: I arrived after the police had gotten here.

MCCABE: We do have a 10-second video clip of the thieves.

PACKARD: Based on their build, it most likely were two men, fairly broad-shouldered, hoods up.

MCCABE: They picked up the trees and carried them away.

PACKARD: They had parked a vehicle. We were able to, you know, see sort of tire tracks and footprints leading up from where that vehicle would've been parked.

MCCABE: You know, it looked like they knew what they were doing. Let's put it that way.

SHAPIRO: The trees that were stolen each have a storied past. One was a silverberry tree planted in 1946 by Kiyoko Hatanaka, one of the few female bonsai artists in a field dominated by men.

CORNISH: The other was a black pine grown by Juzaburo Furuzawa, a Japanese-American man who was put in an internment camp in Utah during World War II.

PACKARD: And received from family members in Japan some seeds, which he then sowed in tin cans. And I'm not familiar with any other tree that exists in the United States that can trace its provenance to being germinated in an internment camp.

CORNISH: As of today, there are no leads on the whereabouts of the two trees, which Packard says could die within days without the meticulous care they're used to.

PACKARD: Their health will decline, damage to foliage, then to death of the tree. Each one of these trees has received some level of daily interaction for 75 years.

SHAPIRO: But McCabe promises there will be no questions asked if the trees are returned.

MCCABE: We're heartbroken. We're angry. But truly, we do just want the trees back. So please bring them back.

SHAPIRO: It's not so far-fetched. In 2015, a different bonsai tree was stolen from the museum and returned a few days later. According to McCabe, that thief simply wanted to practice trimming its branches.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE MAN GROUP'S "ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.