A Jamestown bonsai artist came home from getting a morning cup of coffee Thursday to find an unpleasant surprise on the side of the road.

Al Judnich, owner of Al's Bonsai at 1120 Golf Links Road, found the broken pot of his most valuable Hinoki cypress bonsai tree just outside the fence to his property and had a good idea of what happened.

"I knew they got the Hinoki," he said. "Which is one of our oldest and most prized."

The 45-year-old Hinoki cypress, worth around $4,500 at auction, was swiped sometime in the dead of night by thieves who likely just lifted it up over the four-foot fence it rested against, Judnich said.

"We never expected anybody in Jamestown to buy it because it's very expensive," said Judnich's wife, Anna, of the bonsai that drew admirers from all over Central California. "But I guess we should have expected people to take it."

The Judnichs went to sleep around 10 p.m. Wednesday and the discovery was made around 8 a.m. the next day.

Al Judnich acquired the pricey plant when he purchased another bonsai cultivator's collection several years ago.

It has been meticulously maintained over the past 25 years to give it its full, mature look despite its miniature size.

"I really forget what I paid for it at the time because we just bought a whole lot of stuff at the same time," Judnich said. "I just figured it would be a great addition to the nursery."

Similar Hinoki cypress bonsai trees are typically priced anywhere from about $150 to $2,000 on the online auction website eBay.

However, the asking price for one 80-year-old Hinoki cypress bonsai is currently set at $65,000.

"Bonsai" in English diction is a generic term used to describe miniature plants and trees.

The word is the Japanese pronunciation of the 2,000-year-old Chinese term "penzai," which is the art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants and landscapes in miniature form.

"You're just showing the beauty of nature," Judnich said of the art. "These are the same things you would see in the wild, just a smaller versions."

Creating a bonsai involves planting a cutting, seedling or small tree of certain species suitable for the practice.

Throughout the bonsai's development, cultivation techniques including pruning, root reduction and grafting to make it appear as a much smaller form of a full-sized, mature tree.

Bonsai artist societies and clubs began cropping up in the United States during the 1960s. Judnich said popularity for the art of bonsai surged after it was featured in the hit 1984 film, "The Karate Kid."

Judnich has been a self-employed professional gardener for the past 47 years. He's been cultivating bonsai trees for more than 20 years after taking a class in the Bay Area.

He had a shop in Palo Alto before he and his wife moved to Jamestown in 1993 to raise their three children. Upon moving, they opened Al's Bonsai, where he sells various kinds of bonsai - many priced around $200 - and gives bonsai-making classes and guided tours of his nursery.

Judnich said the only other time he's experienced a theft from his business was about three years ago when someone stole a $400 bonsai. But he said cash was stolen from his next door neighbor's home during a burglary just last week.

Tuolumne County Sheriff's deputies responded Thursday morning to take a theft report and gather evidence, Judnich said.

He hopes the tree will be recovered, but anticipates the culprit won't know the special soil mixture it needs to survive or how to care for it properly.

"We're talking about grand theft here, not petty theft," said Judnich of the loss. "If a guy wants to go to jail for stealing a little tree, then that's his problem."

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4530.