German Auction House Nagel to Make a Strong Comeback with a Chinese Imperial Bronze Figure, Commissioned for an Emperor's Birthday 500 Years Ago

Last August, German auction house Nagel Auktionen welcomed its new management. At the helm of its new CEO Uwe Jourdan, Head of the Asian Art Department Michael Trautmann and the three children of the auction house’s former owner, Robin Straub. The German auction house is presenting its first 2021 marquee sale to unfold its new chapter as Nagel marches into its 100th anniversary. 

Leading the upcoming Fine Asian Art sale in June is a rare Chinese imperial gilt-bronze figure of Vajrabhairava. The monumental Buddhism figure dating back to 1473 was a gift to Emperor Chenghua 26th birthday in the ninth year of the Ming dynasty. The figure stands at a height of 92 cm tall.

Estimated at €1m to €1.5m (US$1.18m - US$1.76m), the bronze figure’s last auction was more than a century ago. It is truly a rare find across both museum collections and those in private hands, with only two other known examples of its kind existing. 

An imperial gilt-bronze figure of Vajrabhairava
China, Ming dynasty, Chenghua period (1464-1487)
Marked and dated “daming chenghua jiu nian shiyi yue chu’er ri anxigong shi
Corresponding to the second day of the 11th lunar month, the ninth year of Emperor Chenghua’s reign, 1473

Height: 92 cm
Weight: Figure: 94 kg, Base: 43 kg, Mandorla: 32 kg

  • Gumpel Collection, Paris, sold Drouot, November 24, 1904, lot 469
  • Alan Hartman New York, 1975
  • Important European private collection

Estimate: €1,000,000 - 1,500,000


The Inseparable Imperial Link

An extremely rare inscription running along the surface of the lotus pedestal gives us a clue to exactly when the bronze figure was cast. From right to left it reads “daming chenghua jiu nian shiyi yue chu’er ri anxigong shi (大明成化九年十一月初二日安喜宮施).”

The first half of the inscription translates to “the second day of the 11th lunar month, the ninth year of Emperor Chenghua’s reign,” corresponding to 1473. A direct imperial link between the Ming court and the present figure lies in the second half of the inscription. The “anxigong shi” part specifies that the bronze figure was bestowed by the Anxi Palace, in which Lady Wan Guifei, the most loved imperial consorts of Emperor Chenghua later occupied. 


Closer looks at the inscription:

"daming chenghua jiu nian" - the ninth year of Ming Chenghua reign"

"shiyi yue chu’er ri" - second day of the 11th lunar month

"anxigong shi" - bestowed by the Anxi Palace


Currently in the collection of Shanghai Museum is a silk embroidery of Buddha from the Anxi Palace, which bears the inscription of the exact date of the present figure, but in the seventh year of Chenghua reign (1471). It was identified by the experts of the museum that it was commissioned by an imperial consort as a gift for Emperor Chenghua’s birthday. 

With the two artefacts being only two years apart, it is possible that the figure on offer was created in the name of the same imperial consort, also for the occasion of Emperor Chenghua’s birthday as a blessing.


A portrait of Ming Emperor Chenghua (1447-1487)



Vajrabhairava as a Powerful, Angry Manifestation of Manjushri

Vajrabhairava is one of the revered meditation deities of the Gelug lineage. It is the most formidable deity and also known as Yamantaka, “the destroyer of death.” It is an angry manifestation of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of Wisdom.

The principal buffalo-head with a ferocious expression, bulging eyes and flaming brows in meticulous detail symbolizes the center of the universe. The wrathful emanation also imparts a sense of command while signifying the victory of wisdom over the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

It is also flanked and surmounted by eight additional heads, including that of Manjushri, which is set against the red painted flaming hairdo, embracing the iconographic elements adopted by the Gelug tradition. Each of the heads represents such elements of one’s power of enlightenment needed to confront death, such as rage, authority, and sedateness. Radiating around Vajrabhairava’s torso, the 34 arms each holds the ritual implements, weapons and mudras. Together with his body, speech, and mind, they represent the 37 limbs of enlightenment. 

His legs would have trampled upon various creatures - though presently missing, such as birds, animals, and subdued gods to convey Vajrabhairava’s conquest over all physical realms of existence, including the constant cycle of birth and death, passions, desires and fears.

Standing 92 cm in height, the figure of Vajrabhairava in militant posture, his consort Vajravetali flinging her left leg around his body, her hands holding a kapala and chopper, backed by a large flaming aureole.

As early as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), a majority of imperial Buddhist craftsmen working in Beijing were Nepalese and Tibetan, led by the imperially-sponsored atelier, the esteemed Nepalese artisan Aniko (1244-1306). While the hallmarks of Newari stylistic preferences were largely retained then and through the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644), as more local Chinese artisans had replaced the Newari craftsmen over time, the iconographic parameters slowly evolved, as shown in the present figure. 

A statue of Aniko at Miaoying Temple in Beijing, which used to be a Tibetan Buddhism Gelugpa Temple, now a museum


Imperatively Rare Gem in Auction History

There are only very few known comparables of such sculptural forms and majestic scale of the present Vajrabhairava figure. Together with two other similar ones, the group of three went to the auction block in 1904 at a Paris sale dedicated to the Gumpel Collection. While all three figures date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the present one on offer is the only one that bears an inscription of the exact date it was cast and is backed by the original flaming aureole. 

The 1904 auction catalog for the Collection Gumpel, featuring the present Vajrabhairava figure

The present figure in a 1970’s poster of Rare Art, Inc., where antique dealer Alan Hartman served as the president at the time


Among the group were two other Vajrabhairava figures, one more recently sold through Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016 (lot 3234); and the other through Sotheby’s New York in 1999 (lot 122).

As for the present one, it last appeared at auction in 1904 and changed hands in 1975, acquired through New York-based antique dealer Alan Hartman. After being a part of an important private collection in Europe for close to half a century, it finally makes its way to a Nagel sale. Going under the hammer on June 23 to 24, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire the magnificent imperial bronze figure, which boasts such a high level of detail, monumental size, and extremely rare inscription.


Another Vajrabhairava figure of similar size and style, subsequently sold by Sotheby’s New York, 1999

Another comparable figure of Vajrabhairava, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2016

Founded in 1922, Nagel is marching into its 100th anniversary. The upcoming Fine Asia Art sale in June will showcase an astounding collection of Asian artworks including centuries-old Buddha figures. Alongside the amazing lot above, there is a stone of Lohan that dates back to the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368) and a Japanese wood sculpture of Bosatsu from the 13th century.

Besides Buddhist works of art, the sale will also cover antiques and Chinese paintings, including the exquisite landscapes by Chinese modern art pioneer Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Chinese traditional painting master Pan Tianshou (1897-1971).

Here are the remaining highlights of the sale:

A rare stone head of Lohan
China, Song/ Yuan dynasty (960-1368)

Height: 41 cm
Provenance: Property from an old German family collection, bought in Berlin in the 1950s
Estimate: €10,000 - 15,000

A very fine wood sculpture of Bosatsu
Japan, Muromachi period (early 15th century)

Height: 100 cm
Provenance: Property from an important North German private collection
Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000


A large fire-gilded bronze of Buddha Shakyamuni 
China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)

Height: 43 cm
Provenance: From an old German private collection, owned by the family since the 1950s
Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000


A very rare imperial bronze figure of Trailokyavijaya
China, Qianlong mark and period (1736-1795)
Inscription: "neng shen sanjie fo yujia genben (Trailokyavijaya Yoga Tantra Basis)"

Height: 20.2 cm
Provenance: Property from the collection of Prof. Dr. Hermann Schroeder (1902-1991), Aachen, Germany and his family
Estimate: €20,000 - 30,000

Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Landscape with village, pine and mountains
China, dated 1946

Dimensions: 34 x 107.5 cm
Provenance: Property from an important German private collection of a scholar, bought in China in the 1960s
Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000

Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), Landscape with a meeting of friends in a mountain retreat and pines
China, dated 1947

Dimensions: 92 x 35.5 cm
Provenance: Property from an important German private collection of a scholar, bought in China in the 1960s
Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000

Auction details:

Auction house: Nagel Auktionen
Sale: Fine Asian Art (796)
Venue: Neckarstrasse 189-191, 70190 Stuttgart, Germany
Viewing dates: June 19-22, 2021 | 11am - 5pm
Sale dates: June 23-25, 2021

Enquiry: +852 69191741