The only intact Densatil Heavenly King sculpture in private hands sells for US$4.8m at Bonhams Hong Kong

When collectors of Buddhist art hear the name Densatil Monastery, it often sparks their interest. High in the mountains in central Tibet, it was once the most powerful force in Tibet and famed throughout the region for its artistic majesty. 

A present-day visitor, however, would find nothing of its former glory, as it was destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution in the second half of the 20th century. All that remains now are a handful of black-and-white photographs and a small group of salvaged fragments of the reliefs and sculptures, which have been preserved in private collections and museums.

This season, Bonhams Hong Kong brought to collectors an eye-catching surprise: a magnificent Densatil gilt copper alloy figure of Virupaksha, the Buddhist Guardian of the West. Twice the size of any other free-standing sculpture from the monastery, at 73cm in height,  it is the grandest and the sole intact Densatil gilt bronze figure still in private hands.

On 1 December, it went for a hammer price of HK$31 million against an opening bid of HK$20 million. After fees, its final price came to HK$37.9 million (US$4.8 million), selling to a telephone bidder with paddle number 823 represented by Julia Hu, Managing Director in Asia.  

Edward Wilkinson | Global Head of Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art, Bonhams 

Lot 1812 | A gilt copper alloy figure of Virupaksha
Central Tibet, Densatil Monastery, early 15th century
Height: 73 cm

  • Chino Roncoroni, before 1999
  • Christie's, New York, 23 March 1999, lot 109
  • A Distinguished Private European Collection

Estimate: HK$35,000,000 - 55,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$31,000,000
Sold: HK$37,964,000 (US$4.86 million)

In the mid-12th century, a charismatic spiritual teacher named Dorje Gyalpo decided to leave his busy monastic life behind for contemplative solitude. In search of a quiet locale for meditation, the Kagyu monk rode a donkey by himself to a remote, rocky area on the northern bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet.

At a point, the donkey could no longer go on, and he eventually settled into a thatched hut in a mountain spot known as Phagmodru, where he would stay ever since. 

By then already had his fame spread far and wide, he soon drew a number of followers to his hermitage, forming around him an eponymous sect known as the Phagmo Drupa Kagyu, or simply as Phagdru Kagyu, while Dorje Gyalpo would come to be called Phagmo Drupa, meaning The One of Phagmodru. 

Nearly three decades after his demise, his two most important disciples decided to build a shrine around their master's thatched hut to honour the great teacher. And that building, Densatil Monastery, would become one of the most important monastic centres in Tibet in the centuries to come. 

Densatil Monastery after reconstruction

The structure of a tashi gomang stupa in Densatil Monastery

Around the time of the building, one of those two disciples, Jigten Gonpon, had a marvellous vision while meditating. In it, he saw the snow-capped peak of the holy Pure Crystal Mountain in Tsari. In a heavenly palace there stood the deity Chakrasamvara, who was surrounded by a retinue of 2,800 deities arranged like an elaborate, multileveled stupa. This, he then thought, would be the perfect container for his teacher's remains. 

Seeking to translate the ethereal into the worldly, Jigten Gompo invited artists from Nepal to help realize the highly complex artwork he had envisioned, building the first type of tashi gomang stupa in his own monastery in Drigung in central Tibet around 1208. 

Other students of Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo, however, strongly resisted the idea of removing their beloved teacher's ashes from Densatil to Drigung, and ultimately Jigten Gompo had to give in to this pressure. 

While his dream failed to come true, this iconographic program he created laid the foundation for the tradition of erecting tashi gomang stupas that were adorned by thousands of deities rendered as statues and in relief to commemorate deceased abbots. 

The tashi gomang stupas inside the Densatil Monastery

The tashi gomang stupas inside the Densatil Monastery; the large sculptures are similar to the present lot

The first tashi gomang stupa built in Densatil was for the abbot Dragpa Tsondru, who died in 1267, and belonged to the noble clan of the Lang – as did its previous abbot. While these members of the wealthy Lang clan were not necessarily important religious figures, they were gifted administrators and politicians, running not only religious but also worldly affairs of the Phagmo Drupa house.  

At the time, under the Mongol rule of Tibet, Phagmo Drupa was elevated as one of the thirteen myriarchies (a unit of subdivision instituted by the Mongols) of Tibet, and Densatil was presented with gifts from Hulagu Khan, brother of Kublai Khan, the Yuan ruler of China.

And it was this influx of wealth and prestige that allowed for the construction of the first tashi gomang stupa, which would stand up to five meters high, entirely covered with gilt-bronze and bejewelled plaques and freestanding Buddhist sculptures.

Having extended the sphere of influence of the Phagmo Drupa step by step through diplomacy, politics, and warfare, by the second half of the 14th century the house had prevailed in Tibet and even replaced the Mongol-backed Sakyas as a hegemonic power. 

Phagmo Drupa's dominant religious and political influence would last until the mid-15th century, by then seven more tashi gomang stupas had been built, all following similar blueprints to each other. 

While Phagmo Drupa gradually lost its power due to internal rivalries after the mid-15th century, its spiritual centre Densatil Monastery had remained undisturbed and unusually preserved until the 20th century, when it was utterly destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. 

Nothing was left except a small group of salvaged fragments of the reliefs and sculptures, as well as a handful of black-and-white photographs taken by the Italian Pietro Francesco Mele, who visited the site with the famed Tibetologist Guiseppe Tucci in 1948. 

As seen from similar sculptures shown in those precious historic photographs, this large gilt copper alloy figure of Virupaksha would have stood before one of the tashi gomang stupas, guarding its entirety. 

The Guardian of the West, Virupaksha is one of the Four Heavenly Kings converted by the Buddha and entrusted with protecting the inhabitants of this world. With his divine eyesight, he discerns evil, punishes evildoers, and causes them to aspire to Buddhahood. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, he usually holds a stupa in one hand and a Naga in the other. Sanskrit for 'serpent' or 'dragon,' the Naga is believed by the Tibetan Buddhists to inhabit an underwater kingdom replete with magnificent palaces and possess an array of magical powers.

Over its glory days spanning two centuries, the sculptural art of Densatil Monastery had absorbed various foreign artistic influences, from the aesthetics of the Newari to that of the Pala Empire in India. 

Cast in the early 15th century – when both the Phagmo Drupa and the Ming Dynasty of China were at the heights of their power – this magnificent figure of Virupaksha exudes strong Chinese and Central Asian aesthetics, its plump features and stout build fashioned after the great generals of the Tang dynasty. 

He wears a highly ornamented, engraved coat of lamellar armour fastened by ruyi clasps at the shoulders and with thick fringes inset with semiprecious stones over the thighs and triceps. Most interestingly, centred within the harness is a large lapis lazuli plaque carved with a Chinese-style dragon. 

Towering at an exceptional height of 73 cm, it is — according to Bonhams —the grandest freestanding Densatil sculpture available in the art market, while most examples measure between 30 to 40 cm tall.

It was last auctioned in 1999 and stands as the sole Heavenly King remaining in private hands, with others constituting highlights of world-renowned museum collections, including the Musée Guimet in Paris, the Museo d'Arte Orientale in Turin, and the Palace Museum in Taipei. 

A similar example in the Guimet Museum in Paris

A similar example in Taipei's Palace Museum

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1808 | A portrait thangka of the second abbot of Riwoche Monastery, Urgyan Gonpo (Prajnastibhadra)
Central Tibet, early 14th century
Image: 50.5 x 38.7 cm; With Silks: 88 x 51 cm

  • Chino Roncoroni, 1997
  • A Distinguished Private European Collection

Estimate: HK$4,500,000 - 6,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,000,000
Sold: HK$8,894,000

Lot 1859 | A silver inlaid gilt and silvered copper alloy figure of a chauri bearer
Greater Gandhara, 4th-6th century
Height: 8.3 cm

  • Rossi & Rossi
  • The Nyingjei Lam Collection
  • On loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1996-2005
  • On loan to the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, 2005-2019

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,800,000
Sold: HK$6,100,000

Lot 1807 | A gilt copper figure of Lama Shang
Tibet, 14th century
Height: 13.6 cm

  • Christian Lequindre, Paris, 1993
  • Private English Collection

Estimate: HK$100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,100,000
Sold: HK$1,401,000

Lot 1837 | A gilt copper alloy and repoussé Chakrasamvara mandala
Nepal, 16th century
Diameter: 26.7 cm

  • Sotheby's, New York, 16 September 1999, lot 83A
  • Moke Mokotoff, New York
  • Christie's, New York, 31 March 2005, lot 166
  • Private European Collection

Estimate: HK$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: HK$900,000
Sold: HK$1,147,000

Lot 1816 | A seventeen-deity Tara mandala
Tibet, circa 15th century
50 x 43.2 cm

  • Private Collection, UK, acquired 1920s, by repute

Estimate: HK$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: HK$900,000
Sold: HK$1,147,000

Lot 1820 | A gilt copper alloy figure of Chakrasamvara
Tibet, 15th/16th century
Height: 34 cm

  • Benny Rustenburg, 2000
  • Private European Collection

Estimate: HK$600,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: HK$700,000
Sold: HK$893,000

Lot 1801 | A gilt copper alloy of a lion
Nepal, 16th century
Height: 7.3 cm

  • JC Moreau-Gobard, Paris, 1991
  • Private English Collection

Estimate: HK$20,000 - 30,000
Hammer Price: HK$200,000
Sold: HK$256,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Bonhams Hong Kong
Sale: Images of Devotion
Date: 1 December 2023
Number of Lots: 61
Sold: 41
Unsold: 20
Sale Rate: 67.2%
Sale Total: HK$75,074,840