Years 1 to 1000
early 1st century CE - The Syon Aphrodite
2014 SOLD for £ 9.4M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated in 2020
The draped Aphrodite of Munich-Syon-Pozzuoli type is copied from a highly elegant Greek statue made around 420 BCE. An attribution to Alkamenes has been proposed. The Syon Aphrodite was sold by Sotheby's on July 9, 2014 for £ 9.4M including premium from a lower estimate of £ 4M, lot 17.
At 203 cm high, it is larger than life. This specimen, which had lost its forearms, had been admired by Aldrovandi in Rome around 1550 in the garden of the Cardinals Cesi. She was then considered as an Agrippina. It entered in 1773 alongside other monumental marbles in the Great hall of Syon House, the residence of the Dukes of Northumberland, identified as a Livia dressed as Juno.
This Aphrodite was too beautiful, with her oval face, her parted lips and her hair tied in a tiara. It remained in Syon, dismissed by the experts who believed that the head was modern because of a crack along the neck. Some restorations had been made in the 18th century, including the fitting of a pair of forearms. The discovery of its twin sister around 2002 in Pozzuoli finally confirmed the admirable state of conservation of the Aphrodite of Syon. It dates from the Julio-Claudian period, at the beginning of the 1st century CE.
Germanicus for Lord Elgin
2012 SOLD 8.1 M$ including premium
Augustus established a new autocratic regime, thus raising the Emperor's succession as a critical issue. He adopted Tiberius as his successor and then forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, in the year 749 of Rome, 2016 years ago.
These two potential successive heirs hated one another. Germanicus was young and beautiful. He was also one of the best generals in the history of Rome, and not interested in politics. When dying at the age of 34, he announced being certain that he had been poisoned.
Some years later, in 790 of Rome, the very unpopular Tiberius also dies, and his successor is the son of Germanicus : Caligula.
The popularity of the father is a good excuse to promote the son, whose criminal fantasies are not yet predictable. Marble portraits of Germanicus are then reissued from a model made at the time of his glory.
One of these marbles, 52 cm high, was purchased in Rome in 1799 of our calendar for the collection of Lord Elgin. This purchase was regular, unlike the removals of the Parthenon marbles made at the same time by the same Lord abusing his position as ambassador to Constantinople.
This portrait is impressive and in very good condition. The aquiline nose has an almost photographic accuracy, and very long sideburns and somehow rebellious curls attest the fashion of Julio-Claudian hairstyles.
It is estimated $ 3M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 6. Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
The catalog was convincing about the exceptional quality of this marble bust. Its price, $ 8.1 million including premium, far above the higher estimate, is well deserved.
Julio-Claudian Marble Torso
2010 SOLD for $ 7.3M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated later in 2010 before the sale of another Torso by Christie's (see below)
This marble without head and members was 110 cm high, larger than life as it was often the case with the statues of Roman emperors. The interest lay in the very fine carving of the breastplate, with animated and varied figures.
There are some similarities between this lot and another marble torso, 119 cm high, which was sold for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's on December 9, 2010. it is a half-century later to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and could represent Trajan. Its decoration is less dense than the example above.
133-138 The Bust of Antinous
2010 SOLD for $ 24M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated in 2020
Around the Mediterranean sea, Hadrian shows himself passionately Philhellene, which is politically clever since it is necessary to avoid the eternal rivalries between the Greek cities. He was in Athens in 129 CE and in Egypt in 130.
A Bithynian about 20 years old, whose physical beauty matched the canon of Dionysus, was part of the emperor's suite. His biography contains no verifiable element : in fact he was more useful dead than alive. His drowning in the Nile reminds the epic legend of Osiris. His name was Antinous. The emperor deified him by imperial decree and multiplied the posthumous honors.
The emperor is powerful and the courtiers are numerous. The iconography of Antinous-Dionysus-Osiris takes on an unprecedented scale, which will cease to be useful after Hadrian's death in 138 CE.
A larger than life marble bust, 84 cm high including the base, was discovered in the 19th century in Banias, on the Golan Heights. It was inscribed in Greek by the dedicatee, belonging to a Roman patrician family : "from M. Lucius Flaccus to the god Antinous". Such a signature is unique in the iconography of Antinous.
In 133 and 134 Hadrian led a very deadly war in the Judaea raised by Bar Kokhba. Banias, romanized as Caesarea Philippi, had a long pagan tradition which justified an ostensible support to the emperor.
The bust is incomplete : the arms are missing, a shoulder is detached and the nose is broken. Despite this condition, it was sold for $ 24M including premium by Sotheby's on December 7, 2010 over a lower estimate of $ 2M, lot 9.
Eastern Han - Nephrite Bear
2011 SOLD 8 M$ including premium by Elite Decorative
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
526 Buddhist Triad of the Northern Wei
2017 SOLD for $ 5.8M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
Xuanwu's death in 515 CE opens a long period of civil wars in which the dominant personality is his widow the Empress Dowager Hu. Even more zealous than Xuanwu, Hu had gigantic Buddhist shrines built around the capital Luoyang. These temples are populated with countless altar figures in gilded bronze or in stone, for which an unprecedented perfection is requested. Many of them bear the date of their consecration.
Buddha is the main character, often flanked by two smaller bodhisattvas. The group in the round is positioned in front of a mandorla centered with a radiant halo. The stone carving technique is inspired by the Gandhara schists but the figurative details are different with a great care paid to the amplitude of the long robes.
A remarkably preserved 61 cm high marble triad was sold for $ 5.8M including premium by Christie's on March 15, 2017 from a lower estimate of $ 600K, lot 529 in the auction of the Fujita Museum collection.
This piece is dated to the second year of Xiaochang, the fourth era of the child emperor Xiaoming, corresponding to 526 CE. The three characters have half-closed eyes and a soothing smile. Buddha has one hand raised and the other lowered, in the blessing gesture of abhayamudra and varadamudra. In front of each of the bodhisattvas is a seated roaring lion. The top of the mandorla is missing.
Tang - Horse by Han Gan
2017 SOLD for $ 17M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The Tang are great protectors of the arts. Narrative paintings feature groups in complex situations, with picturesque detail. The Taizong emperor also inaugurates the Tang's passion for the horse, that indispensable auxiliary of the warrior. He commissions the portraits of his favorite horses to Yan Liben.
The Tang imperial horses are the subject of a selection, integrating the best foreign breeds. The peak is reached during the reign of Xuanzong. His stable is reputed to house 40,000 horses, some of which are specially trained to dance in front of the emperor. Polo, hunting and jousting are practiced with passion. The main horse painter is Chen Hong.
Around 750 CE the self-taught artist Han Gan is noted for his artistic talents and invited to collaborate with Chen Hong. Han Gan abandons stylization for realism. The portrait of a horse, sometimes with a rider or a groom, becomes his exclusive theme. Each animal is observed individually.
On March 15, 2017, Christie's sold at lot 509 for $ 17M including premium the image of a horse by Han Gan, 32 x 38 cm, very readable but heavily cracked. The animal with an elegant two-tone hair walks with a dignified slowness. The colophon of the Qianlong emperor includes no less than twelve imperial seal marks and the artwork is listed in the catalogue of his collection, the Shiqu Baoji.
Xuanzong's long reign is culturally splendid and politically catastrophic. The emperor had abandoned management to devote himself to pleasures. He was deposited in 756 CE after a short civil war. This date is probably the terminus ante quem for an original painting by Han Gan.
756 Gods, Sages and Emperors
2011 SOLD 115 M RMB yuan by China Guardian
narrated post sale
The guqin is the first of the four treasures of the scholar, ahead of Chinese go, calligraphy and ink painting. It was known since ancient times and the Chinese tradition likes to assign it with a pre-dynastic origin. Confucius is quoted among the sages who improved the instrument.
The classical seven-string guqin provides a music of great subtlety facilitated by the dots of harmony distributed on the surface. The wooden back is also an invitation to the inscription of poems.
The Imperial guqins are of great rarity. One of them named Da Sheng Yi Yin (reminiscent of the great sage) was sold for RMB yuan 115 million by China Guardian in 2011.
It was produced for or by the Emperor Suzong of the Tang. Lacquered in black and brown, it wears a poem and a seal and its harmonics match the months of the Chinese calendar. Its date is corresponding to 756 in our own calendar. Both sides are illustrated in an article shared by China Daily.
In December 2010, Poly sold for RMB yuan 137 million including premium (US $ 20.7 million in the conversion rate of that time) an imperial Song guqin made for the Emperor Huizong in 1120 of our calendar.
Tang - Ten Virtues on the Face of Buddha
2013 SOLD 40.4 MHK$ including premium
To embody the ten virtues on the face of Buddha, a new technique identified as "dry lacquer" was developed in the Tang period. The goal was to obtain a perfect carving on a piece sufficiently light to be easily moved during the processions.
A mandrel of wood is plated with clay before being covered with the layers of lacquer-imbued hemp wherein the carving is performed. The artist has all the necessary comfort to improve his work until the desired effect is achieved. Then, wood and clay are removed.
The dry lacquer made in Tang period is extremely rare. Of course, many of these fragile pieces made to be handled have been broken over the centuries. They are so rare that we may assume that the Buddha figures using this technique were performed by a single workshop, perhaps unrelated to the imperial court.
A serene Buddha head is estimated HK $ 20M, for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on October 8. The larger than life size, 46 cm high, is accentuating the majestic look. Its symbolic expression of the perfection of virtues through facial features is a masterpiece of the art of portraiture.
Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
The unusual technique and the beauty of the face of Buddha pushed this piece up to HK $ 40.4 million including premium.
early Song - The Partners of Amitabha
2019 SOLD for HK$ 45M including premium
The two bodhisattvas appear as identically dressed twins. They nevertheless have separate roles. Avalokiteshvara brings the infinite compassion and Mahasthamaprapta the power of wisdom. The main difference is the ornamentation of the frontal crown, a figure of Amitabha for Avalokiteshvara and the urn of wisdom for Mahasthamaprapta. In China they are respectively named Guanyin and Dashizhi.
Carved in the early Tang dynasty, a pair of limestone bodhisattvas 67 cm high was separated by Christie's on September 13, 2018, fetching $ 3.25M and $ 2M including premium.
Buddhism is persecuted in China from the reign of the Wuzong emperor of the Tang dynasty. The period of the five short-lived dynasties that follow each other from 907 to 960 CE after the fall of the Tang remains for Buddhism a period of weakness before its renewal under the Song. The altar figures are now made of wood, cheaper than bronze or stone. Polychromy is still applied.
On May 29 in Hong Kong, Christie's sells a pair of wooden bodhisattvas, lot 2713 estimated HK $ 40M. They are standing in an identical attitude in mirror inversion, for flanking an Amitabha that has disappeared. They are 145 cm high without including their modern stands. Traces of pigments have been preserved. Please watch the video where the sequences alternate with a monumental Qing Buddha.
Some details including the fishnet pattern of the necklace are typical of the early Song. A departure from the Buddhist canon during the dark period has lengthened the legs and slightly reduced heads and necks.