A 16th-17th century gilt-bronze Buddhist triad fetches 9.5 times its low estimate at US$2m

Last week, Christie's Paris presented an Asian Art Sale, which saw many lots garner heavy interest and sell for multiple times of their estimates, leading the sale total to €7.75-million (around US$8.3 million). 

The most expensive lot was a gilt-bronze Buddhist triad dating from 16th to 17th century. With energetic biddings, it surpassed its low estimate of €200,000 and soared to €1.9 million (around US$2 million), which accounted for 24 percent of the sale total. 

Lot 91 | A gilt-bronze Buddhist triad
China, Ming dynasty, 16th - 17th century
Height: circa 50 cm (statue); 78 cm (total)

  • From the collection of a Belgian engineer who worked for the Belgian 'Compagnie de Tramways et d'Eclairage de Tientsin' from 1934 to 1938 in Tianjin, and thence by descent in the family

Estimate: €200,000 - 300,000
Sold: €1,902,000
(around US$2 million)

Likely commissioned by a wealthy patron as a pious gift to a major temple, this rare triad embodies the classical Chinese sculptural style as interpreted in the mid- to late Ming period, in contrast to the contemporaneous Tibeto-Chinese style that was popular in court circles.

The full rounded faces, the large downcast eyes and the outturned earlobes, for instance, are characteristics of the sculptors of the Ming dynasty. The ones influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, have much more elongated features.

While the three figures share the same marks, they can be distinguished from one another by their mudras, the symbolic gestures they are making with their hands. Here, from left to right, the Buddhas are identified as Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha; Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha; and Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. 

In Buddhism, such ensemble represents the change of space; whereas another typical triad, the combination of Shakyamuni, Dipankara and Maitreya, symoblizes the change of time, representing present, past and the future. In either groupings, the central figure would be Shakyamuni.

The central figure in the triad, the Shakyamuni, or the Historical Buddha

The central figure in the triad, the Shakyamuni, or the Historical Buddha

The central figure in the triad, the Shakyamuni, or the Historical Buddha

Shakyamuni, or the Historical Buddha, is known as the founder of Buddhism, who instructs living beings in the Sahā world where we live. Born a crown prince in the royal Shakya Clan, he rejected worldly life as well as all claim to his father throne for a religious life. After leaving the kingdom, he studied meditation and vowed that he would sit under a tree and not rise until having found the state beyond life and death. 

Years after he had left the royal life, he attained enlightenment and preached the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, two of the most important teachings in Buddhism. On his death at age eighty, c. 483 BC, he entered nirvana. 

Shakyamuni is typically shown in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsa-mudra), which symbolizes the moment of his enlightenment, when he summoned the earth to witness the momentous achievement. In this mudra, he holds his left hand in the lap, palm up, and lowers his right hand over the right knee, with palm facing inward. 

Bhaisajyaguru, on the left of Shakyamuni 

On the left of Shakyamuni is Bhaisajyaguru. Known as the Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru is the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise of Pure Lapis Lazuli, who shows unbiased compassion for all living beings.

As revealed by the Medicine Buddha Sutra, he protects all beings from illness—whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual—just as he also protects them from other dangers and obstacles. He also helps them to eradicate the three poisons — attachment, hatred, and ignorance — which are the source of all passions, delusions, illnesses, and dangers.

According to traditional iconographic conventions, Bhaisajyaguru is portrayed with the left hand in the lap, palm up in the meditation gesture (dhyana-mudra); the right hand lowered over the right knee, palm out, in the gift-giving gesture (varada-mudra) , signifying that he is preaching.

In many representations, as here, he holds a single myrobalan fruit between the thumb and index finger of the lowered right hand.

Amitabha, on right of Shakyamuni

Right to Shakyamuni, Amitabha, or the Buddha of Infinite Light, is the principal deity of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism.

According to sacred texts, a monk named Dharamakara once made a series of forty-two vows, the eighteenth of which promised that after he had obtained buddhahood, all who had faith in him and who called his name would be reborn in his paradise and would reside there in bliss until they too had attained enlightenment. Having accomplished his vows, Dharmakara reigned as the Buddha Amitabha in the Western Paradise, called Sukhavati, or the Pure Land.

Though he may be shown any one of several different mudras, Amitabha is most characteristically presented with hands in the meditation gesture (dhyana-mudra) – the hands in the lap, the right hand resting atop the left, and palms facing upward. 

In the case of Amitabha’s mudras, the hands are often positioned so that one finger of each hand touches the thumb, forming a circle, indicating the level of paradise on which Amitabha is preaching.

Three figures of the same ensemble in Taiwan's Fo Guang Shan. Shakyamuni in the meditation gesture (dhyana-mudra)

The Belgium collector and his daughters, photo taken in the 1930s in Beijing

One figure in the present lot, photo taken at the collector's home, 1945-50

Belgian Compagnie de Tramways et d’Eclairage de Tientsin once thrived in Tianjin

In excellent condition, the triad comes from the family collection of a Belgian engineer who worked for the Belgian Compagnie de Tramways et d’Eclairage de Tientsin, in the Chinese city now known as Tianjin, from 1934 to 1938.

During the mid-19th century, Tianjin was opened up as a treaty port and became an important center for foreign trades. With growing commercial development and population comes increasing demand for public transportation. In 1904, Compagnie de Tramways et d’Eclairage de Tientsin was granted an official monopoly for 50 years over trams in the city, with its headquarters located in Belgium and office in the Tianjin city.

Dominating the city's public transportation, the company had its heyday back at the time. However, during early 20th century, when the city fell to Japan as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the company was taken over by Japanese. Following the end of World War II, as Japan surrendered, tramway was returned to the hands of Chinese government, and the company was closed around the 1970s. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 34 | Qi Baishi | Ducks, Hanging Scroll, Ink and colour on paper
138.2 x 69.5 cm

  • Collection of Elisabeth and Frédéric Dahlmann, the present painting was painted and gifted directly by the artist for Mrs Dalhmann’s birthday, 25 October 1955 in China
  • Frédéric Dahlmann was vice-president of the Economic Commission (1957-1983) of the Belgian-Chinese Friendship Association

Estimate: €100,000 - 150,000
Sold: €478,800

Lot 53 | A pair of cloisonné enamel, spinach-green jade, celadon jade and zitan hat stands
China, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736 - 1795)
Height: 29.5 cm

  • Previously from a French private collection, in the family since the late 19th century

Estimate: €120,000 - 180,000
Sold: €302,400

Lot 102 | A yangcai 'hunting scene' wall vase
China, Qing dynasty, Qianlong six-character horizontal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736 - 1795)
Height: 22 cm

  • Previously from a French private collection

Estimate: €15,000 - 20,000
Sold: €302,400

Lot 28 | An imperial ritual painting
China, Qing dynasty, circa 1700
169.8 x 91.2 cm

  • French private collection, acquired in the French art market in the 1970s-1980s

Estimate: €60,000 - 80,000
Sold: €289,800


Lot 173 | A gilt-bronze group of Mahachakravajrapani and his consort
Tibet, 16th century
Height: 20.2 cm

  • Previously from a French private collection, thence by descent to the present family

Estimate: €50,000 - 80,000
Sold: €245,700

Lot 104 | A ruby-glazed small cup
China, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period (1723 - 1735) or later
Height: 3.1 cm; Diameter: 6.5 cm
Estimate: €50,000 - 80,000
Sold: €176,400

Lot 68 | A small mother-of-pearl-inlaid red lacquer table, anji
China, Qing dynasty, 18th - 19th century
32.8 x 90 x 43.5 cm

  • Previously from an English private collection

Estimate: €6,000 - 8,000
Sold: €132,300

Lot 61 | A pair of monumental cloisonné enamel candlesticks modelled as cranes
China, 19th - 20th century
Height: circa 211 cm
Estimate: €40,000 - 60,000
Sold: €107,100

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's Paris
Sale: Art d'Asie
Date: 16 December 2022
Number of Lots: 196
Sale Total: €7,753,944 (around US$2 million)