“Dark Horse” Figure of Mahakala Fetches US$1.36m at Bonhams Hong Kong Despite Low Pre-sale Estimate

Bonhams’ Hong Kong Buddhist art sale, Images of Devotion, recorded a sell-through rate of 48%. Judging by the figure itself, the results seem far from satisfactory. Yet, if we look at the performance from another perspective, Bonhams actually pulled off a sale with decent results.

On one hand, the leading lots were keenly sought after and hammered down at high prices. On the other hand, even a “dark horse” Buddhist figure carrying a low estimate was sold for a price beyond expectation.

The auctioneer of the sale was Edward Wilkinson, Executive Director of Bonhams Asia, also Global head of the Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art department. He has been playing an indispensable role in leading successful sales of Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art at Bonhams.

Considered as one of the notable achievements at this sale, a copper alloy figure of Mahakala from 12th-13th century was hammered at a price of more than fivefold rise in its estimate. Estimated at HK$2m-3m (US$260,000 - 380,000), the figure is cast from bronze and stands tall at 42 cm in height. The bronze figure commands a strong visual impact with naturalistic dynamism. Its expression of "wrath without fury" (Wei Er Bu Nu) is characteristic of wrathful deities from Dali.

The bidding started at HK$1.5m and attracted a number of bidders at the very beginning. After the price reached HK$5m, there were mainly two competitors, a telephone bidder and a lady in the room, staying in the bidding battle. The former one was quick in offering higher bids while the latter seemed hesitant.

Such strong contrast heated up the bidding atmosphere as everyone wondered if the lady would be staying in the battle. Having held their breath for a long time, people in the room were finally relieved when the figure was hammered down at HK$8.8m and sold for HK$10.6m (US$1.36m) with buyer’s premium to the telephone bidder.

Further contributing to the success of the sale, the top two leading lots of the sale also achieved remarkable results. The winning lot was the Sonnery Kurkihar Buddha from the 11th century, carrying an estimate of HK$8m-12m (US$1.02m- 1.54m). The standing Crowned Kurkihar Buddha is a canonical image in Buddhist art. The position of each finger is consistent across all its representations. One hand is held in Abhaya mudra, and the other holds the inner hem of the cape-like robe. The use of copper and silver inlay creates a compelling visual rhythm, directing the viewer's gaze upward across the elegant silhouetted frame, rising to a crescendo of profound sweetness and grace within the rounded face.

The bidding started at HK$6.5m and elicited 13 bid increments in a row, pushing the price up to HK$10m in a blink of an eye. At that point, two bidders (one in the room and a telephone bidder) stayed in the battle and took alternate turns offering higher bids. The price went steadily up to HK$18.2m, the hammer price of the lot. The figure was sold to the telephone bidder for HK$21.9m (US$2.8m) with buyer’s premium.

The second most expensive lot fell to a gilt copper alloy figure of Akshobuya from 15th century Tibet, the Buddhist figure featured on the cover of the catalogue. This exquisite jewel-like sculpture depicts Akshobhya, the Buddha of the East, with a powerful frame and commanding posture. He is clad in a monastic patchwork robe with prominent stitched seams converted into the finest conceivable brocaded garment of floral scrolls and raised flowers, inset with semi-precious stones. The middle fingers and thumb of his left hand cup a humble ungilded alms bowl in his lap, perhaps the only reminder of Buddhism's renunciation of material wealth on this magnificent golden sculpture.

The figure carried an estimate of HK$15m-25m (US$1.92m- 3.2m) but bidders were not as enthusiastic as anticipated. The figure was offered an opening bid of HK$13m and hammered down at HK$15m after four bid increments. It was sold to a telephone bidder for HK$18m (US$2.31m) with buyer’s premium.


Top three lots (by sale results)


Lot no.: 16
Height: 39cm

  • Collection of Jean-Louis Melchior Sonnery de Fromental (1920-1995), acquired 1960s, by repute
  • Private French Collection, acquired from the above, 1980s
  • Collection FKH, USA, acquired from the above, 2012

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000  (US$1.02m- 1.54m)
Hammer price: HK$18,200,000
Price realized: HK$21,900,000 (US$2.8m)


Lot no.: 22
Height: 34cm

  • European Private Collection, acquired in the early 1990s
  • Rossi & Rossi Ltd
  • American Private Collection, acquired from the above in 2012

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000 (US$1.92m- 3.2m)
Hammer price: HK$15,000,000
Price realized: HK$18,060,000 (US$2.31m)


Lot no.: 10
Height: 41.5cm

  • Private French Collection
  • Private European Collection, acquired from the above in 2001

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 (US$260,000 - 380,000)
Hammer price: HK$8,800,000
Price realized: HK$10,620,000 (US$1.36m)


Auction Summary

Auction house: Bonhams Hong Kong
Sale: Images of Devotion
Auction date: 2017/10/3
Sale total: HK$72,235,000
No. of Lots: 42
Sold: 20
Unsold: 22
Average price per lot: HK$3,611,750
Sell-through rate: 48%
(All prices realized have included buyer’s premium unless otherwise specified)