15th/16th century sculptural set of Sakya's Five Forefathers tops Asia Week New York at US$3m

As the world recovers from the pandemic, this season's New York Asia Week saw a thriving revival of the long-quiet Asian art market. 

Hot on the heels of the noteworthy The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection of Classical Chinese Furniture and the sold-out J. J. Lally sales, Bonhams delivered yet another remarkable auction on 21 March.

Of the 42 lots offered at the Himalayan art sale, 24 found new buyers, totalling in a modest US$5.45 million. Though the sell-through rate might not sound impressive, many lots that sold had attracted heavy interests and soared far above estimates.

The highest-selling lot belonged to a group of inscribed portrait bronzes commemorating the five forefathers of the Sakya order which dated 15th/16th century, during the Ganden Renaissance in Tibet. Sparking spirited competition, it was hammered on a bid of US$2.4 million – nearly five times its low estimate US$500,000. With fees, it fetched US$2.94 million, becoming this season's most expensive lot sold so far. 

Lot 521 | A set of copper alloy portraits depicting the five patriarchs of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism
Central Tibet, Tsang Province, 15th/16th century
Height: 17.8 cm

  • Private New England Collection, acquired in New Delhi, 1960s
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$500,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: US$2,400,000
Sold: US$2,940,375

The Sakya school is one of the four principal traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, alongside Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug. Literally meaning 'pale earth', its name derives from the unusually grey landscape of the Ponpori Hills in southern Tibet, where Sakya, the first monastery of this tradition, was founded by Khön Konchog Gyalpo in 1073.

At the heart of the Sakya order is the lineal transmission of the Lamdré teachings, or Path with the Result, a meditative system rooted in the view that the result of its practice is contained within the path.

Starting with Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158), the first of the patriarchs, the five forefathers of the Sakya order – all from the Khön family – are revered in the school for establishing the core teachings of the order. 

Under their leadership, the Sakya order achieved achieved pre-eminence during the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) of China. The fifth forefather, Drogon Choegyal Pagpa, who had the emperor's full support, was honoured with the highest religious title of Imperial Preceptor and held significant power within the Mongol court, which enabled Sayka to become the center of political power in Tibet for nearly a century.

The first of the Sakya patriarchs, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo

The first of the Sakya patriarchs, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo

The first of the Sakya patriarchs, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo

The fifth of the Sakya patriarchs, Drogon Choegyal Pagpa

The fifth of the Sakya patriarchs, Drogon Choegyal Pagpa

The fifth of the Sakya patriarchs, Drogon Choegyal Pagpa

Even as their power waned after the fall of the Yuan empire, the Sakya order managed to maintain its religious influence in the region. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the emperors, who aimed to facilitate administration in Tibet – which was remote from the court – had once again sponsored the Sakya order, though less exclusively than under the Yuan. 
Nonetheless, the Sakya were among the major contributors to Tibet's Ganden Renaissance – the 15th and 16th centuries – a golden age of unparalleled artistic, intellectual, and spiritual achievement. Many portrait bronzes were created during this exceptional period in Tibetan art history, and the current sculpture set is among the finest known examples.

According to the house, this group of inscribed portrait bronzes is likely the only complete set of its kind outside of Tibet. While they are stylistically held together by the warm patina and heavy engraving, each of these fathers is meticulously modelled with their own particular features. 

Their hairstyles range from long to short, curly to straight; eyebrows are angled or round, noses are sharp or wide, and jawlines are bearded or cleanly-shaven. Their hand gestures are also likewise distinct, and though three display the teaching gesture, their wrists and fingers are uniquely flexed in way that does not adhere to formulaic repetition.

The second of the Sakya patriarchs, Sonam Tsemo

The third of the Sakya patriarchs, Jetsun Drakpa Gyeltsen

The fourth of the Sakya patriarchs, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen

Each portrait's base has a dedicatory Tibetan inscription around the foot

In the portraits' reverse, the heavily patterned surfaces of the clothing, which were rendered by crosshatching a negative silhouette around relief designs, attest to the high level of artistry achieved by the skilled craftsmen of the time.

Impressively, despite each sculpture's small size (15.8 cm tall with base), the artisans were able to engrave exquisite and lavish patterns on their robes, with four of them featuring cartouches depicting animals like deer, phoenixes, hares, and lions. 

Like archaic bronze vessels, Buddhist sculpture which bears inscription is regarded more valuable. For the present lot, each portrait's base features a dedicatory Tibetan inscription around the foot, the texts of which glorify the Buddha fathomless wisdom and power.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 513 | A gilt copper alloy figure of Tara
Nepal, Early Malla Period, 14th century
Height: 34.5 cm

  • The Zimmerman Family Collection, since mid-1960s

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: US$820,000
Sold: US$1,033,575

Lot 506 | A Buddhasamayoga mandala
Central Tibet, Shalu Monastery, 14th century
88.6 x 78.4 cm

  • Sundaram Gallery, South Extension, New Delhi, February 1968
  • Private Collection, California

Estimate: US$150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: US$320,000
Sold: US$403,575

Lot 510 | A gilt copper alloy figure of Prajnaparamita
Nepal, Early Malla period, 13th century
Height: 14.5 cm

  • Sundaram Gallery, South Extension, New Delhi, July 1969
  • Private Collection, California

Estimate: US$80,000 - 120,000
Hammer Price: US$210,000
Sold: US$390,975

Lot 512 | A blackstone stele of Mahapratisara
Northeastern India, Bihar, Pala period, 9th century
Height: 68.6 cm

  • Sundaram Gallery, South Extension, New Delhi, December 1968
  • Private Collection, Los Angeles

Estimate: US$50,000 - 70,000
Hammer Price: US$120,000
Sold: US$151,575

Auction Details:

Auction House: Bonhams New York
Sale: Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art
Date: 21 March 2023
Number of Lots: 42
Sold: 24
Unsold: 18
Sale Rate: 57%
Sale Total: US$5,545,498