900-year-old Buddhist sculpture from distinguished collectors to star in Asia Week New York

Throughout the 10th and 13th centuries, Buddhism thrived in Dali Kingdom  modern day Yunnan Province, southwestern China. Temples, scriptures and art were propagated and encouraged by its rulers.

A gilt bronze Guanyin Bodhisattva sculpture from Dali Kingdom will feature at Christie’s New York next week. With a distinguished provenance, it was formerly part of the Collections of C. T. Loo, Grace Rainey Rogers and Arthur M. Sackler. Estimated between US$2 and 3 million dollars, it tops Asia Week New York auctions this season.

Gilt Bronze Figure of Guanyin Bodhisattva  Dali Kingdom

Created during late 11th century – early 12th century
Height: 57.1 cm

  • C. T. Loo & Co., New York, circa 1924
  • Grace Rainey Rogers (1867-1943) Collection, Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Collection of the Late Grace Rainey Rogers; Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., 18-19 November 1943, Lot 285
  • C.T. Loo & Co., New York or Frank Caro, New York
  • Arthur M. Sackler Collections
  • Acquired from the above in 1982

Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Estimate: US$2,000,000 – 3,000,000

There are many different incarnations of Guanyin Bodhisattva – the Great Being of Infinite Compassion – who delays Buddhahood to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment. He or she can appear as the Water Moon, Child-Giving or in this case, Willow Branch Guanyin.

Images of Guanyin holding a willow branch and a vase are often termed Yangliu Guanyin, or Willow Branch Guanyin. In the Dali Kingdom, images of the Willow Branch Guanyin are sometimes also called Bhaisajyaraja Avalokitesvara – a Sanskrit name that means Medicine King – a reference to the healing powers of the willow branch.

The stylistic characteristics unique to the Dali Kingdom are numerous – such as a squarish face with a tiny chin; small, almond-shaped eyes that look directly forward, as well as elaborate crown and jewellery.  

These traits are shared amongst a small group of gilt bronzes that depict Guanyin Bodhisattva holding a vase and willow branch from 10th to 13th century China – found in prestigious Museum Collections around the world – including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum of Asian Art; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Tsz Shan Monastery Buddhist Art Museum, Hong Kong and Shanghai Museum.

According to a Christie’s specialist, this present sculpture would have been backed by either a halo or a mandorla when worshipped in a temple. The lotus-petal-shaped aureole suggests light radiating from the deity’s body – ultimately symbolising its divine status.

This sculpture and related ones in this group lack a tenon at the back of the head, or between the shoulder blades to secure a mandorla. This suggests either that a sculpted mandorla was affixed to and supported by the now-lost base, or that the mandorla was painted on the wall behind the figure.

As few original bases of comparable Dali bronze sculptures have survived, the exact appearance of this sculpture’s original lotus base remains unknown. But it is possible that this sculpture’s base might have resembled the double-lotus pedestal of the 12th century, Dali Kingdom Acuoye Guanyin Bodhisattva found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A square opening with gently curved sides on the figure’s back gives access to the sculpture’s hollow interior. It is possible that the opening was covered with a gilt-bronze plate, which concealed dedicatory objects – such as small paper scriptures, textile fragments and glass beads.

Acuoye Guanyin Bodhisattva, Dali Kingdom, 12th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It is believed that the cavity (upper back section) was originally sealed with a gilt bronze plate used to conceal dedicatory objects

The wealth of jewellery – including elaborate necklace with multiple strands descending onto the chest and with a medallion at the waist; a U-shaped loop secured below the waist and numerous long sashes draping over the shoulders and beside the legs – share similarities with Willow Branch Guanyin Bodhisattva sculptures found in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum of Asian Art and Shanghai Museum.

This Guanyin sculpture’s provenance can be traced back to circa 1924, when it belonged to the prominent Chinese antique dealer, C. T. Loo (1880-1957). Since then, the sculpture passed through the hands of Grace Rainey Rogers (1867-1943) and Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987). Both were distinguished American collectors and philanthropists, and the pair had museum buildings built and named following their donations. 

Sackler's name is more commonly found in auction catalogues. The late New York pharmaceutical billionaire's Collection of Chinese antiques can be described as holistic – encompassing bronzes, jades, books, ceramics, Buddha sculptures and furniture pieces. Christie's and Sotheby's held sales from his Collections.

Gilt Bronze Guanyin Bodhisattva, Dali Kingdom, 12th century, Tsz Shan Monastery Buddhist Art Museum, Hong Kong (left); Gilt Bronze Guanyin Bodhisattva, Dali Kingdom, National Palace Museum, Taipei (right)

Gilt Bronze Standing Figure of a Bodhisattva, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 CE), Shanghai Museum (left); Gilt Bronze Guanyin Bodhisattva, Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), 12th century, Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Museum of Asian Art (right)

Prominent Chinese antique dealer, C. T. Loo (left); This Guanyin Bodhisattva sculpture was recorded in Bronze Antiques de la Chine appartenant a C. T. Loo et Cie (1924, right)

Buddhist sculptures from the Dali Kingdom rarely appear at auctions. The most recent auction that such sculptures were featured were from the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection. Florence served in leadership positions in different institutions, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Herbert was co-founder of Sysco Corporation, the world’s largest food distributor.

In 2019, Christie's New York held a sale from the Irving Collection – showcasing two Guanyin Bodhisattva sculptures (one standing and one seated) – also produced during 11th to 12th century China. In the end, the former sold for US$1.935 million dollars; while the latter failed to sell.

Estimated between US$2 million and 3 million dollars, this present Guanyin sculpture will be auctioned during this season’s Asia Week New York. The sale will be held on 24 March, and The Value will report on its result.

Grace Rainey Rogers (left) and Arthur M. Sackler (right) were distinguished American collectors 

Gilt Bronze Acuoye Guanyin Bodhisattva, Dali Kingdom, 12th century │ Christie's New York, March 2019 │ Sold: US$1,935,000

Gilt Bronze Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva, Dali Kingdom, 11th-12th century │ Christie's New York │ March 2019; Unsold