Like so many of the Chinese arts, China’s ultra elite have driven the demand for Buddhist art to new highs. While the ultimate intention of the works may be to encourage serenity, harmony, meditation and study, disruption in the sales room is not uncommon as bidding wars escalate. There are still occassions to acquire fine Buddhist sculpture at more reasonable prices, if you know the ropes.
The most expensive Chinese work to sell at auction was a 15th-century embroidered thangka painting with direct links to the Imperial Court. It went off in 2014 at Christie’s for $45M (around £29M). More recently, a 14th century Nepalese gilt bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni made $10M USD (about £7.7M), also at Christie’s.
Throughout the two-thousand year history of Buddhism, artisans have paid homage in as many media as can be imagined: stone, ceramic, gesso panels, paintings, wood, gold, silver and gilt bronze. According to Kwong Lum, President of the fifteen-year old Gianguan Auctions in New York, Buddhist art was created by unnamed makers, artisans shying away from any bad karma they might pick up due to pride. Occasionally, pieces come to the fore bearing inscriptions or reign marks that offer clues to their history.
Provenance, which is always an important factor, takes on an added dimension with Buddhist art as it can be the guide to determining that a purchase adheres to the UNESCO accord of 1970, which states, among other things, that all works produced before and including the Tang dynasty cannot be sold unless they were removed from China prior to 2009. A well respected auction gallery, even a small regional one like Gianguan Auctions, will stand by the provenance whether it is through ownership lineage or markings on the object itself.
While Westerners expect variety in form and figure, Buddhist art is a teaching tool that promotes repetition. To appraise an item yourself, you must, as Christie’s Associate Specialist Tristan Bruck has written, do due diligence and learn about regional and period subtleties.
Among these differences are the vibrant colors and craggy backgrounds in Chinese paintings that do not occur in Tibetan ones. Period related nuances can be stance, truncated hands and the unusual parallel folds of a robe as seen in a Northern Qi marble figure coming up at Gianguan Auctions.
Know the indigenous media and their durability. Look for inscriptions and question the specialist on the meaning. When you see remaining pigment or signs of restoration, determine how they might affect value. Always buy the very best you can. Tastes change, even in an area as narrow as Buddhist art, whether you decide to sell or change the display on your home altar.
Opportunities to buy Buddhist art come up soon with Christie’s Hong Kong sale “The Perfect Countenance–Buddhist Works of Art” and on Saturday, June 10, when Gianguan Auctions, New York, presents a strong collection of Buddhist art from domestic US collections. For details on on the New York offerings, please see the catalog at GianguanAuctions.com.