Chronology : 1-1000 1000-1300 14th century 15th century 1400-1429 1430-1459 17th century 1610-1619
Schist Group from Gandhara
2020 SOLD for $ 6.6M including premium by Christie's
narrated post sale in 2020
Around the 1st century CE, Buddhism defined the 32 characteristics of the figurative representation of Buddha to provide the faithful with visual elements to facilitate interpretation. The Gandhara sculptors gradually abandoned Greek figures to illustrate in schist the scenes from the life of Buddha. An ascetic Buddha from the fasting episode was sold for $ 4.45M including premium by Christie's on March 22, 2011.
A 62 x 59 cm gray schist stele surfaced in 1973. Under a lush Buddha tree, five deities are housed with scales varying according to their position in the Buddhist canon. The central figure is the Shakyamuni Buddha in the preaching period, seated on lotus petals. He is flanked by the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya. Avalokiteshvara is recognizable by the tiny figure of Buddha coiled in his crown. Behind them, the two smaller worshipers are Brahma and Indra.
All these figures have been carved in deep relief in the stele. The very skilful composition provides the perfect illusion of a sculpture in the round. In the Greek style, the faces are realistic and the attitudes are flexible.
This stele bears an inscription. It is dated to the 5th day of the month of Phalguna in the year 5 from a period that has not been identified, between the end of the 1st century and the 5th century CE. The donor, named Buddhananda, is learned in the three baskets (pitakas), covering all the sacred texts at that time, and he dedicates the work to his parents.
The sculpture is in excellent condition, apart from the fact that three of the bodhisattvas' four forearms carrying offerings are missing. It was sold for $ 6.6M including premium by Christie's on September 23, 2020, lot 609.
#AuctionUpdate Sold to applause after competitive bidding, a rare and magnificent gray Schist Relief Triad of Buddha Shakyamuni with Bodhisattvas realized $6,630,000 -- more than 8x over its high estimate. https://t.co/ui1Ion9dcd pic.twitter.com/nxEKQeqVPI— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) September 23, 2020
A Liao Buddha
2016 SOLD for € 13.6M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
In this period, Buddhist iconography is inspired by Tang figures. Gradually, the return of apocalyptic predictions brings a need to protect the knowledge and strengthens the worship of Maitreya.
Many figures are in painted wood or in clay. Gilded bronze is very rare and reserved for pieces of the utmost luxury. A 21 cm high deity from the beginning of this period, who may be Avalokitesvara or Maitreya, was sold for $ 2.5M including premium by Christie's on March 19, 2008.
A Vairocana Buddha 24 cm high in gilded solid bronze was sold for € 13.6M including premium by Christie's on December 14, 2016, lot 53. This piece, made in the 11th century CE, bears an administrative Liao inscription, unfortunately undated, which attests to its importance.
This figure has some exceptional characteristics. Vairocana is the primordial Buddha. His high tiara is centered with an image of Buddha and integrates into the crown the five cosmic Buddhas, the Tathagatas. His fists are joined in the gesture of knowledge. He is seated on a lotus whose stylized leaves are curiously overflowing. The figuration of jewelry and drapery is luxurious.
The Charming Pala Prince
2017 SOLD for $ 24.7M including premium
Three religions cohabitated : Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. They shared a same preoccupation of regulating the communication between the divine and the mortal. In Buddhism this function is assured by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
On March 14 in New York, Christie's sells as lot 233 a statue realized in the later phase of the Pala period around 900 years ago.
The young man sits on a thick lotus, one leg bent and the other hanging. This figure is carved in a black stone similar to a schist which was widely used in the Pala steles and whose hardness enables a great sharpness of sculpture.
He necessarily has all the qualities. The spectacular dynamism of the attitude appeals to dialogue with the faithful. He is a prince elegantly dressed with a profusion of pectoral jewels chiseled in the stone but he also is an ascetic recognizable by his braided hair. His belonging to Buddhism is identified by Amitabha hidden in a fold of the tiara : he is altogether Avalokiteshvara, the all-seeing lord, and Lokanatha, the savior of the world.
The character is life-size in this 148 cm high statue. Such characteristics unusual in Buddhist art suggests that it was the main devotional figure in a temple specially dedicated to Avalokiteshvara.
It was from 1922 an important piece in the collection of Indian art of the Boston Museum before being de-accessionned in 1935 for a trade with another statue of the same culture. The arms and nose were missing. The nose was later rebuilt.
1193 A Kamakura Buddha
2008 SOLD for $ 14.4M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The top artists of this transition are Kokei and his son Unkei, who are from Nara and work for the main Japanese temples. Unkei began his career before 1176 as an apprentice to his father, whom he succeeded around 1195 as the schoolhead of the Kei family.
Their figures are made of wood, assembling many elementary parts with joinery techniques. Unkei departs from the Buddhist canon by making male figures of great expressive power. He also innovates by inserting crystals in the eyes. His statuettes are hollow to contain relics, often including a wooden plaque that identifies the artist and the date.
In 2000, in an antique shop somewhere in the Japanese countryside, a collector is astonished by a wooden figure 66 cm high, which he manages to buy. The piece does not have the weight of solid wood. It is gold lacquered with pigment conservation, and the jewelry ornaments are in hammered metal. It was probably taken out of a temple during the promotion of Shinto in the Meiji period.
Three years later, the curator of sculptures at the National Museum of Tokyo confirms that this piece perfectly matches Unkei's style. Because of its fairly large size, experts consider that it can correspond to a work by Unkei made in 1193 for a funeral memorial.
The figure was perfectly sealed and has not been disassembled. By X-ray inspection, three relics are identified in its cavity : the plaque, which could not be read, a five-stage crystal pagoda symbolizing the material elements, and a crystal ball.
It matches the iconography of Dainichi Nyorai who can be indifferently considered as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. The gesture of two closed fists one above the other and joined by the index finger of the lower hand symbolizes the knowledge.
This Japanese Buddha was sold for $ 14.4M including premium by Christie's on March 18, 2008, lot 200.
The Nepalese Bodhisattva
2015 SOLD for $ 8.2M including premium
The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was popular under various names throughout the Buddhist world. Nepalese enthusiastically welcomed this charming young man entrusted for teaching purity to them. Nepalese bronzes show him in a standing position with a big lotus on its rod floating behind the left arm.
With his hand wide open as a sign of benevolence, his bare chest and his face focused on meditation, Avalokiteshvara is somehow the Apollo of Buddhism.
A gilt bronze 45 cm high made in Nepal 800 to 700 years ago was sold for $ 2.5 million including premium by Christie's on March 20, 2012 over a lower estimate of $ 250K.
A figure 64 cm high of very similar design is estimated $ 2M for sale without reserves by Christie's in New York on March 17, lot 25.
This gilt bronze includes a further refinement of high importance. The crown is centered with a fine seated figure of Amitabha, the Buddha of Nirvana, leaving no doubt about the role played by Avalokiteshvara to guide humans to the gods.
Yuan Dynasty - Heart Sutra by Zhao Mengfu
2017 SOLD for RMB 190M including premium by Poly
narrated in 2020
Active after the fall of the Song in 1279 CE, Zhao Mengfu is a prince-artist who belongs to the fallen dynasty. Poet, jurist, painter and calligrapher, he combines the strict clarity of regular calligraphy with the expressiveness of semi-cursive calligraphy. Despite the ambiguity of his political engagement under the Yuan, his calligraphy has always been considered exemplary. Zhao is one of the greatest calligraphers of all time.
Zhao is a Buddhist. The Heart Sutra is perfect for serving as a model for two reasons. It is the shortest of the Sutras and its most classic version fits in five or six sheets. It is especially appreciated in China because its oldest known version is in Chinese language.
Several pieces calligraphed by Zhao are known. After a long career, he dies in 1322 CE at the age of 68, and these works cannot be dated with precision. An ancient legend shows the artist copying a Heart Sutra to exchange it with a monk for tea.
A Heart Sutra by Zhao Mengfu was sold for RMB 190M including premium by Poly on December 17, 2017, lot 3535. This piece is a five-sheet 28.6 x 12 cm album, with no drawing added. The five sheets are illustrated twice in the post-sale article by The Value.
The Buddhist Legitimacy of the Yongle Emperor
2014 SOLD for HK$ 350M including premium
The Prince took power in a coup four years later, 1402 in our calendar. His nephew, who perished in the fire of the imperial palace after having revived the feudal war, was scholar minded and supported by the Confucians. The new emperor erased from the annals the reign of his predecessor of whom he massacred the followers, took the name Yongle meaning Perpetual Happiness and immediately began to prepare for the transfer of the capital from Nanking to Beijing.
The ambitious Yongle could not appear as a usurper : he offered to himself a Buddhist legitimacy. He invited the Karmapa, who was one of the most important sages of Tibetan Buddhism and got his power through reincarnation.
The trip of the Karmapa from Tibet to Nanking lasted four years, during which Yongle organized the Buddhist tribute to his deceased parents and prepared lavish gifts. The stories of miracles performed by the Karmapa were propagated and contributed effectively to assure the power of Yongle, now firmly established as Hongwu's heir.
On November 26 in Hong Kong, Christie's sells a wonderful silk thangka embroidered with silk and gold threads, lot 3001. This monumental piece 3.35 x 2.13 m is in perfect condition with bright colors of great beauty.
According to the concerns of Yongle, its theme is the victory over death. The central character with a bright red head is Raktayamari, the Conqueror of Death, who embraces his wife and mercilessly tramples the blue body of Yama the Lord of Death lying on the back of a buffalo. The top and bottom of the image display some deities inviting to Buddhist devotion.
This piece includes the presentation mark of Yongle. The existence of two thangkas of same quality in a monastery in Lhasa along with the fact that the thangka for sale was in Sikkim in the 1940s reinforces the assumption that it had actually accompanied the Karmapa in his return trip.
I invite you to play the video shared by Christie's:
The Yongle Mark on a Buddhist Figure
2013 SOLD 236 MHK$ including premium
At the beginning of his reign, 600 years ago, his sympathy for Buddhism is clearly stated. Relying on a meeting with an important Tibetan scholar, it is accompanied by the announcement of miracles.
Nothing is simple with the Yongle emperor. His personal preference went certainly to Confucianism, and such a pro-Buddhist movement could be a strategy to reduce the influence of the Yuan.
During his reign, the massive gilded bronze statues reach a perfection of form, proportions and beauty of attitudes. This peak of Chinese Buddhist art will continue into the reign of Xuande.
On October 8 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sells a statue 55 cm high with the mark of Yongle. The absence of color traces goes against the Tibetan tradition and suggests that this Buddha was designed for the use of the imperial court.
Seated on a double lotus, Shakyamuni Buddha displays an attitude of complete serenity. His eyelids are closed despite the temptation from the demons in the last events preceding his enlightenment. A hand towards the ground shows that he does not forget the realities.
Here is the link to the catalog. The estimate beyond HK$ 50M has been indicated in the press release of August 28.
POST SALE COMMENT
Buddha had all the qualities, and it is the same for this statue: beauty of carving and gilding, perfect expression, important period. It was sold for HK $ 236M including premium.
1430 Imperial Wisdom
2018 SOLD for HK$ 240M including premium
A gold ink on dark blue paper is sumptuous. A Lotus Sutra handwritten in 1345 CE for the education of a child emperor of Korea was sold for HK $ 31.6M including premium by Sotheby's on May 30, 2016. The lot consisted of seven big albums.
Buddhism is essential for the consolidation of the Ming dynasty. After the death of the warrior emperor Yongle, his Buddhist advisers organize a period of peace. The very short reign of the Hongxi emperor initiates the necessary reforms. His son the Xuande emperor can satisfy his artistic talents and grant to Buddhism a preference devoid from political intents.
During the fifth year of his reign, 1430 CE, Xuande commissioned an Elder of the State named Huijin to calligraphy four great Sutras. The paper is covered with dark indigo ink mixed with goat brain. This thick, brilliant and strong layer allows the gold to stay on the surface without diffusing into the paper fibers. This biological constituent is an emulsifier similar to egg white in the tempera paint.
All the four Sutras are realized. Two are kept at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The third was probably early lost in a fire after being presented to a monastery founded with Xuande's sponsorship.
Two cases containing five consecutive albums each from the Sutra of transcendent wisdom or prajnaparamita have survived. In addition to the calligraphy, the work includes illustrations in thin gold lines of Buddhist, imperial and esoteric figures including Buddhas, dragons and demons. This set will be sold by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 3, lot 101. The rest of this very long Sutra is lost.
Please watch the video shared by Sotheby's.
1615 Eighteen Luohans by Wu Bin
2009 SOLD for RMB 170M including premium by Poly
narrated in 2021
Wu Bin, who was a very skilled landscape artist in the Wanli era, was also a caricaturist. He was a devout Buddhist while remaining secular. He loved to ridicule the Luohans, therefore assessing that they were human beings.
The MET has a 32 x 415 cm scroll with sixteen Luohans. It bears a date corresponding to 1591 CE, and is arguably one of Wu Bin's earliest works on this subject. The serious and grotesque characters are stylized, but they are all different one another.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has an undated scroll 38 x 2500 cm by Wu Bin featuring 500 Luohans with 18 assistants plus Guanyin. They exercise their powers in an endless variety of situations. They know how to tame tigers and dragons, walk on water, fly on the back of a crane.
On November 22, 2009, Poly sold a 31 x 570 cm scroll by Wu Bin for RMB 170M including premium from a lower estimate of RMB 20M, lot 5125. It is referenced and illustrated in an article published in 2020 by The Value.
A date inscribed in the work corresponds to 1615 CE. The eighteen Luohans are accompanied by grotesque animals. The Qianlong emperor, better known for his erudition than as a humorist, commented in a colophon about the quietened dragon which holds the sacred book in its claws.