A treasure hunt at Nagel Auction: hidden religious gems to be offered in Germany in June

With the rapid development of the Internet, more and more antique collectors are turning to overseas auctions in search of rare and valuable treasures. One popular destination for such endeavors is Nagel, the leading auction house in Germany, renowned for its century-long history and fascinating tales of remarkable finds.

In a recent episode, the spotlight was on a Qing Dynasty blue-and-white vase from the Qianlong period. This vase was sold at Nagel in June last year for €596,000 (around RMB 4.6 million) and later fetched an astounding RMB 13.8 million in a Beijing auction earlier this month, marking a threefold increase in value in less than a year.

Nagel's upcoming Asian Art sale, scheduled for 10 June, will further pique the interest of collectors. This auction will focus on Buddhist art, featuring a diverse range of items spanning centuries and originating from different regions, including the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Dali Kingdom, Tibet, and the Ming Dynasty.

On this occasion, let's take on a journey of treasure hunting and discovery.

Lot 18 | A fine Guhyasamaja mandala, framed and glazed
Tibet, 15th century
58 x 48 cm
The reverse with an inscription in the Vartula script

  • From an important German private collection, acquired at Koller Zurich, 24 May 1994, lot 48, illus. plate 9 

Estimate: €25,000 - 35,000

When it comes to the Renaissance, what often comes to mind are the great masters of Western art; however, around the same period on the other side of the world, there was another Renaissance in Tibet – one that witnessed a revival of Buddhism and a flourishing of arts, culture, beliefs, and philosophy. And this cover lot, a 15th-century Guhyasamaja mandala, is the fruit of this religious blossom. 

At a time when Buddhism waned in Tibet, an influential monk and tantric yogi named Tsongkhapa (circa 1357-1419) emerged as the leading figure in the reform of the Buddhist order. Donning a yellow pandita hat, he founded the Gelug school, also nicknamed the Yellow Hat sect, or Ganden School after the first monastery established by him, which became one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Along with support from Tibetan kings and Chinese emperors, Buddhist art experienced a glorious time during this period, and it was when the present mandala was created. Despite being passed down for centuries, it has remained remarkably well-preserved. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala is envisaged as an abode of deities, a sacred place which is separated and protected from the impure outer world.

Essentially a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional celestial palace, it represents a variety of Buddhist symbols in symbolic color, line, and geometric forms, and maps the meditative path for the practitioner, connecting them to the deity and the world he inhabits. 

As a spiritual guidance tool, the mandala is essential to ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana. Esoteric in nature, the teachings of Tantric Buddhism are transmitted in secrecy from master to disciple. 

In the center of this vibrant and well-ordered mandala is the main deity Guhyasamaja, “The Secret Assembly,” its tantra being one of the five Unexcelled Yoga Tantras of Vajrayana Buddhism. As depicted here, he is usually three-faced and six-armed. The three colors of his faces, blue, white, and red, represent universal compassion, purity, and blessings respectively. 

He is positioned in the center of a nine-square grid and is predominantly portrayed in various shades of blue. Surrounding him are eight important deities depicted in blue, yellow, red, green, and white; while the outermost circular band features scrolling tendrils in white, red, yellow, and green.

These five colors hold multiple symbolic meanings within Tibetan tradition. First, they represent the Five Dhyani Buddhas who played a central role to Tibetan Buddhism; Second, they correspond to the five cardinal directions: center, east, south, west, and north; Third, each symbolises the sky, air, fire, water, and earth. 

Bordering it is a square pavilion with a gate at each side, guarded by bodhisattvas. These gateways aid viewers in mentally entering the sacred space, assisting in overcoming obstacles and achieving spiritual attainment.

The outer square walls are adorned with magnificent three-lobed arches, and mythical creatures like makaras, who serve as guardians of the splendid palace.

The square palace is further encircled by several bands, consisting of the lotus wheel, the eight great charnel grounds, and the fire wheel from inner to outer.

The lotus is an icon of Buddhism, symbolizing purity and being untouched by worldly afflictions. Here, it serves as the foundational support for the entire mandala. The eight great charnel grounds, providing protection to the mandala, represent ancient Indian charnel grounds where numerous practitioners and yogis attained realization through meditation. The fire wheel is depicted in five colors, representing the Five Wisdoms associated with the Five Dhyani Buddhas.

Surrounding the outermost fire wheel are various depictions of deities, guardians, lineage masters, yogis, and auspicious symbols. These elements represent the emphasis on lineage and transmission of beliefs within Tibetan Buddhism, highlighting the importance of the continuity and preservation of the teachings and practices.

Mandalas from this period with the same theme are rare on the market, but there is a comparable example (see below) in the Taipei National Palace Museum. 

The reverse with an inscription in the Vartula script

A Guhyasamaja mandala | Tibet, 15th to 16th century | Taipei National Palace Museum

Lot 137 | A marble figure of Buddha Shakyamuni
China, Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550 A.D.)
Height: 98 cm

  • From an old South German private collection, acquired from Günter Venzke, Berlin, in March 1999

Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000

The general chaos during the Sixteen Kingdoms (304-439) and the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420-589) plunged China into 300 years of prolonged turmoil. States were at constant war with one another for land and political control – and north China was fragmented into a series of short-lived dynastic states.

Against this backdrop, Buddhism flourished and became a source of comfort and guidance for Chinese. Copious financial resources were devoted to Buddhism, with several shrines being constructed under the emperor's and royalties' personal auspices. This would continue when the Wei Dynasty (386-585) reunified northern China. The Wei would patronize Buddhism as a state religion, as it gave their multiethnic empire a unifying factor. 

Eventually during the split of the Northern Wei into the Eastern (534-550) and Western (535-557) Wei, the former had their capital moved to Yecheng, now Hebei province, where it became a center of Buddhist culture. While the dynasty would only last sixteen years, it played a crucial role to development of Buddhist art during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, acting as a bridge between past and future. 

In ancient Chinese Buddhist art, great emphasis was placed on capturing both the physical beauty and spiritual essence in sculptures. The artists strived to convey an ethereal and graceful demeanor through the sculpting of the Buddha's physical body; the wisdom and profound understanding of philosophical truths through his countenance. And this statue of Shakyamuni Buddha from the Eastern Wei dynasty serves as an exemplary embodiment of these artistic ideals.

The Buddha's eyes, almond-shaped and slightly closed, convey a sense of serenity and compassion, while a gentle smile graces his lips. Standing barefoot on a pedestal, the Buddha's left hand extended and palm facing out in varadamudra, symbolizing his compassionate nature and willingness to assist others. The right hand, though now lost, would likely have been depicted in the abhayamudra.

The sculpture portrays the Buddha wearing inner and outer garments. The inner garment features a right-side monk's robe, while the outer layer consists of a kasaya robe. The robe's sash is tied around the chest and abdomen, with two ends hanging down, forming distinct U-shaped folds at the hem. The lower part of the robe flares outward, with intricate curvatures along the edges. 

This style of the Buddhist's attire follows the typical style seen in sculptures from the Northern Wei period, characterized by wide sleeves and a large waistband.

​​​​​Following the unification of Northern China, Emperor Xiaowen (471-499) implemented reforms that would incorporate Confucian and Taoist ideas into their Empire. In this context, the favored attire of literati and poets was further incorporated into Buddhist sculptures.

Another characteristic of Northern Wei sculptures is how Buddha statues emphasized a slender figure and well-defined bones. As seen in the present figure, his somewhat skinny face is matched by how loose the clothes fit on him. If not for the indicative hairstyle, one may mistake this Buddha for a Taoist hermit.

While many Eastern Wei Buddhist sculptures continued the traditions of their predecessors, there were stylistic changes as well. In terms of facial features and body proportions, although they still leaned towards slenderness, they became slightly fuller compared to the earlier Northern Wei period.

A stone figure of Maitreya | Eastern Wei Dynasty, dated Xinghe third year (541 A.D.) | Beijing Palace Museum

A stone figure of Shakyamuni (Partial) | Eastern Wei Dynasty, dated Tianping third year (536 A.D.) | Qingzhou Museum

The present marble figure came from an old South German private collection and was acquired in March 1999 from Günter Venzke in Berlin. Venzke is an antique dealer specialising in Chinese art, including sculptures, porcelain, and jade, among others. 

Standing at nearly one meter in height, the sculpture is striking not only for its monumental size but also – and perhaps most importantly – for the fact that its head is still intact,  making it a truly rare find in the market. Among public collections, both the Beijing Palace Museum and the Qingzhou Museum house similar examples from the same period. 

Lot 154 | An important gilt-bronze figure of a buddha
China, probably Dali Kingdom, circa 10th - 11th century
Height: 30.8 cm

  • Old private collection, acquired on 4 November 1982 from T.Y. King & Sons Ltd. Hong Kong (copy of invoice available)

Estimate: €20,000 - 30,000

Renowned for its distinctive style and aesthetics, Buddhist bronzes from the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan have always held a special fascination for connoisseurs – and they are extremely rare in the market. The present figure, for instance, is one-of-two known examples of a standing gilt-bronze figure of Shakyamuni. 

The other one, dated 11th to 12th century of the Dali Kindom, shares remarkable similarities in terms of form, style, and size with the present piece, and it was offered by Nagel Auction in 2010. Highly sought-after, the piece demanded 20 times its estimate of €60,000, reaching €1.2 million. 

In 2016, that sculpture resurfaced on the market at Beijing Poly Auction with an estimate of RMB 12 million, and again, it soared above the estimate, realising a whopping final price of RMB 21.85 million. 

A gilt-bronze figure of a buddha | Dali Kingdom, 11-12th century | Sold: Around €1.2 million, Nagel Auction, 2010; RMB 21.85 million, Bejing Poly, 2016

The present gilt-bronze figure features a well-crafted face that portrays a calm expression with perched eyebrows over peering eyes and smiling lips, common for Dali Kingdom statues of the Buddha. The slightly more reclined nature of the rest of the body and protruding abdomen area signifies this as an early evolution within Dali statue making.

His left arm sticks out and holds a traditional Buddhist alms bowl, an important item in the religion. Inside this bowl could be the seven Buddhist treasures, including gold, silver, seashell, and pearl. This along with the shape of the statue infers that it was of great importance and may have been used for specific rituals within the Dali Kingdom that had to do with the Azhaliism otherwise known as the Dianmi sect of Buddhism.

He wears a traditional monastic garb that rests on his left shoulder and drapes across his body. The robes then cover most of his feet and flutter out at the bottom partially covering his feat. It also stands at an impressive 30 cm, which is unusual for Buddha statues from the Dali Kingdom, with them usually measuring 10 cm, or 20 cm at most.

It was acquired in 1982 from T.Y. KING & SONS LTD. in Hong Kong, a prominent antique shop founded by Jin Caibao in Shanghai in the early Republican period and later managed by his son Jin Congyi.

With more than three decades of continuing success, T.Y. King was one of the largest antique shops in Shanghai, even spreading its name far and wide to Europe. The shop specialized in stone sculptures, archaic bronzes, sancai pottery wares and premier Song and Yuan wares. In 1949, the King family moved to Hong Kong and continued its antique business there.

In 2013, Sotheby's dedicated a single-owner sale to the Chinese bronze collection of Julius Eberhardt, an acclaimed Austrian architect, which pulled in US$16.8 million. Six out of ten lots on offer were purchased from T.Y. King by the late Greek ambassador Alexander Argyropoulos, accounting for 86%, or US$14.55 million, of the total sales. 

Lot 162 | A rare and large sandstone stele depicting Buddha Shakyamuni
China, Ming Dynasty, circa 15th century or earlier
Height: 68 cm

  • From the collection of Gerd-Wolfgang Essen (1930-2007), assembled between the 1950s and 1980s, bought from Hauswedell, Hamburg, 15.11.1968, lot 13

Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000

Buddhist statues have evolved numerous times over the years and in accordance with local customs and sects. However, the three figures-in-a-row style of the statue has endured throughout the years of change.

This style was influenced by the Greek presence in Northwestern India having been established there by Alexander the Great, as well as the Kushan dynasty (30-375), a multicultural empire noted for how they helped spread Buddhism to Central Asia and China. It also became popular in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420-589).

This statue in particular originates from the 15th century in China during Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), roughly between the reigns of the Yongle and Hongzhi Emperors. It would have also been during this time when many of the Buddhist traditions and aesthetics were borrowed from Pure Land Buddhism, but also exudes Chinese influence. 

A red sandstone stele depicting Buddha Shakyamuni | Kushan Empire, 1st-2nd century | Mathura Museum, India

Stele with Maitreya and attendant bodhisattvas | Northern Wei dynasty, dated Yongxi third year (534 A.D.) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From existing artifacts, the topmost decoration of a stele would have featured apsaras, a tradition long held since ancient Indian times. The top of this piece, on the other hand, features a pair of dragons chasing a pearl, which exudes royal grandeur associated with Chinese empires.  

Another distinctive characteristic of the Ming Dynasty period is the double-jeweled ornament on the crown of the main Buddha image. This ornament combines traditional Chinese Han style with exotic bead accessories from the Yuan Dynasty. 

The lions beneath the lotus pedestal, serving as attendants to the Buddha, are derived from the Indian tradition. In early Buddhism, lions symbolized the highest stage of the Buddha's spiritual practice and were considered powerful symbols of the triumph of the Dharma over external obstacles.

The conch sitting on the head of the central figure is one of the 32 major characteristics of the Buddha. His ears are hanging out, his robe is folded, and the position of his hands indicates he is meditating, and radiating a sense of calm.

The bodhisattvas next to him are smiling with their hands also folded, with relative detail as well given the small size of the figures. The two side figures would usually be. The Buddha’s attendants Kuan Yin and Maitreya, but depending on the sectarian beliefs this might change.

The statue came from the renowned German religious scholar and collector of Buddhist art Gerd-Wolfgang Essen. Much of his collection has been donated to the Basel Museum of Culture in Switzerland.

Lot 156 | In the style of Guo Xi (circa 1001-1090) | Mountain Landscape with Travelers, Ink and light colors on silk, round fan, mounted as album leaf
China, Yuan to Ming Dynasty (1271-1644)
23.7 x 23 cm
One artist's seal and three collectors' seals

  • Old and important European private collection, assembled before 1930 and between 1950 and 1980

Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000

The Taipei National Palace Museum is home to three esteemed national treasures in the realm of classical Chinese paintings from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), an era marked by the flowering of arts and culture. One of the "Three Treasures" officially declared is Guo Xi's Early Spring from 1072. 

Primarily self-taught, the artist was one of the most famous artists and influential art theorists of his time, highly regarded for landscapes and pictures of dried trees that are recognizable for their "crab-claw" branches. 

During the reign of Emperor Shenzong (r.1067-1085), Guo served as a master court painter and was entrusted with creating large-scale screen and mural paintings for important palaces and temples in the capital. His talents were greatly recognized by the emperor, leading to his appointment as the highest-ranking member of the Hanlin Academy, an elite scholarly institution during imperial China. 

Guo Xi (circa 1023-1087) | Early Spring | Taipei National Palace Museum

Today, only a handful of his paintings have survived, with only two that may be considered authentic: that national treasure kept by the Taipei National Museum, and Old Trees, Level Distance (circa 1080) housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Despite the scarcity of his surviving works, his brushwork and innovative use of perspectives have served as important references for later generations. His influence extended to royal and noble circles, literati, and peasants, and continues to resonate to this day.

This specific fan painting, inspired by the great master's style, can be traced back to the Yuan to Ming Dynasty. The majestic pines with "crab-claw" hooked branches are hallmarks of Guo's brushwork; its composition exemplifies two of his three modes of distance, namely "high distance" (gaoyuan) and "even distance" (pingyuan), to depict scenes from a bird's eye view and a street view. 

Lot 350 | A very rare imperial sky-blue glazed mallet-shaped vase
China, underglaze-blue Kangxi six-character mark and period (1662-1722)
Height: 16.2 cm; Diameter: 11.7 cm

  • Collection of the German diplomat Herrmann Dobrikow (d. Beijing 1928), by descent to a family member


  • Lepke, Berlin ‚Sammlung Dobrikow Peking Chinesische Kunst, 4./5.3.1930, lot 202
  • Suebsman/ Antonin ‚Porcelain Treasures of the Kangxi Period‘, Hetjens-Museum Duesseldorf 2015, p. 106, no. 33


  • The Dancing Dragon/ China Contemporary‘ Hetjens Museum, Duesseldorf, 19.7.2015 - 17.1.2016, no. 33

Estimate: €8,000 - 12,000

Cloaked in a luminous sky-blue glaze of jade-like quality, this extremely rare vase represents an ingenious monochrome creation exclusive to imperial porcelain during the early to mid-Qing period. 

Known in the West by the 19th-century French connoisseurs' term clair-de-lune (moonlight), and in China as tianlan (sky blue), this high-fire glaze with a low cobalt content was first produced by the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen – the mecca for Chinese ceramics – during the Kangxi Emperor's reign (1662-1722).

While the colour remained popular throughout the Qing dynasty, the gentle and delicate hue characteristic of the Kangxi period was lost in the 19th century and never replicated in later ceramics.

The purity of this elegant glaze is accentuated by its usual form, its domed body tapering smoothly to a short neck – a shape known to the Chinese as a "horse-shoe" vase. It was presumably a Song Dynasty borrowing from the West Asian glass perfume bottles that entered China via the Silk Road and by sea. 

The original celadon version from the renowned Longquan kiln of the Song Dynasty featured a more angular shoulder and bearded rim, and this traditional shape was modified slightly to appear more curvy and flowing in silhouette during the Kangxi period.

There is only one known example comparable to the present vase, which is preserved in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum. And this lot came from the collection of German diplomat Herrmann Dobrikow and was released to the market in the 1930s through a Berlin auction house. 

During his stay in China, the diplomat developed a keen interest in Chinese culture, amassing a vast collection of Chinese antiques which encompassed diverse categories including pottery and porcelain from the Tang to Qing dynasties, later bronzes, snuff bottles, and textiles.

In 2016, Christie's Hong Kong sold an imperial bronze 'dragon' censor from his collection. With fierce bidding, the piece eventually fetched HK$4.24 million against a low estimate of HK$1 million.

Lot 304 | A large court blue and white porcelain jardinière‚ penjiang ji
China, Kangxi period, circa 1680-1700
Diameter: 47 cm

  • Collection of the government builder Hoffmann, Kaiserdamm 74, Berlin-Charlottenburg, sold from his estate by a family member to the present owner January 2001, the original invoice from China Bohlken, inv. no. 379 (RM 270.-) is still preserved

Publication and Exhibition:

  • Kangxi - Porcelain Treasures of the Kangxi Period, Hetjens Museum, Duesseldorf, June 2015 - February 2016, no. 54
  • Cf. ‚Treasures in the Royalty - The Official Kiln Porcelain Of The Chinese Qing Dynasty, 2003, no. 81

Estimate: €6,000 - 10,000

Measuring an impressive 47 cm in diameter, this Kangxi blue-and-white dragon jardinière is remarkable for its magnificent size and aesthetic depiction of kui dragons. 

The Ming and Qing Dynasties are world-famous for the highest – if not unrivaled – level of craftsmanship achieved for porcelain production by the imperial kilns. But even those extraordinary artisans would face challenges, and one such challenge was the production of large jars. 

These jars' sheer volume and thickness made achieving uniform heat distribution during firing particularly difficult, resulting in a high risk of cracking and collapsing. Although a dedicated "Dragon Jar Klin" was established during the Ming Dynasty, the success rate remained remarkably low, with only a few meeting the desired standards out of hundreds attempted. 

In the early Qing dynasty, even with the revival of imperial kilns, producing dragon jars remained a considerable challenge, and it was not until the Kangxi period that the imperial kilns finally achieved success. 

The original invoice from China Bohlken in Berlin 

Surrounding the present jardinière's belly is a continuous scene of dynamically posed kui dragons rendered in vibrant cobalt. 

The kui dragon is a traditional motif commonly found in archaic bronze vessels. Over the course of more than three thousand years in Chinese history, the depiction of such dragons has undergone various transformations, their bodies becoming more and more slender and coiled, even to a point where they resemble vines and leaves. Kui dragons of this kind, particularly popular in imperial Ming porcelain, are known as xiangcaolong, literally translated as "vanilla dragon". 

When comparing similar jardinière from the Qing dynasty, it is more common to find kui dragons depicted in a geometric manner, making pieces like this one with vivid depictions of vine-like bodies relatively rare. An identical piece that forms a pair to the present lot is held in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum.

Auction Details:

Auction House: NAGEL Auktionen Stuttgart 

Sale: Asian Art (824)
Date and Time: 10-11 June 2024 | 9:30 (German Local time)
Preview: 7-9 June 2024 |10:00-17:00

Website: www.auction.de
Enquiry: +49 711 649690 | +852 3899 6617 / 69191741 
Address: Neckarstraße 189 - 191 D - 70190 Stuttgart