Too Ambitious? Sotheby’s Aggressive Estimates for Buddhist Art Sale Discourage Potential Buyers

The battle of Buddhist art sale is a tough one to win.  For Buddhist art sales this fall, all auction houses have presented a bulk of precious and exquisite Buddhist works of art. Yesterday, Poly auction Hong Kong recorded phenomenal results from the sale of Yongle Imperial Buddhist Sculptures. It came to Sotheby’s turn this morning but the performance was far from satisfactory. The leading lot, a group of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava and Vajravetali from 15th century Tibet, was passed and went unsold. The top three lots with the best results were all hammered down at (or even below) their lowest estimates.


The leading lot, a group of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava and Vajravetali from 15th century Tibet, carried an estimate of HK$25m-30m (US$3.2m-3.84m). The bidding started at HK$19m and stopped at HK$24m merely after a few bid increments. The figure was passed as the bid did not reach its lowest estimate.

The lot with the highest price was a gilt-bronze dancing figure of Tara Pitti Uddiyana incised mark of Xuande, estimated at HK$25m-30m (US$3.2m-3.84m). The bidding started at HK$15m but the bidding atmosphere was mild. After several bid increments, the price went up to HK$22m but no subsequent bids followed. After about a minute, bidders offered two more bid increments. The figure was hammered down at HK$25m (its lowest estimate) and was sold for HK$29,912,500 (US$3,828,800) with buyer’s premium.

The second top lot was a gilt-bronze standing figure of Maitreya from the Hongwu period in Yuan Dynasty, carrying an estimate of HK$20m-30m (US$2.56m-3.84m). The bidding began at HK$13m and ended at a hammer price of HK$20m, also the lowest estimate of the figure. The lot was sold for HK$24,100,000 (US$3,084,800) with buyer’s premium to a telephone bidder represented by Nicolas Chow, Deputy Chairman for Sotheby's Asia.

The third one was a large gilt-copper figure of Manjushri from Nepal of Malla period,14th century, estimated at HK$15m-25m (US$1.92m-3.2m). The bidding started at HK$9.5m and there were mainly two telephone bidders fighting over it. When the price went up to HK$14m, one of them hesitated for a long time. After talking to Nicolas Chow on the phone, the bidder offered a higher bid. The figure was hammered down at HK$14.5m, lower than its lowest estimate. It fetched HK$17,500,000 (US$2,240,000) with buyer’s premium.

When the sale was over, I overheard a conversation commenting on the sale. The reason why it performed less than satisfactory was not due to the selection of Buddhist sculptures but rather the aggressive estimates. Sotheby’s was too ambitious in setting the estimates, which discouraged some potential buyers.


The Leading Lot

A Magnificent and Large Gilt-bronze Group of Yamantaka Vajrabhairava and Vajravetali from Tibet, 15th Century

Lot no.: 3133
Height: 30cm

  • Acquired in Geneva, 30th January 2002.
  • Property of a Gentleman

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 30,000,000


Top three lots with best results

An Outstanding and Extremely Rare Gilt-bronze Dancing Figure of Tara Pitti Uddiyana
Incised Mark and Period of Xuande

Lot no.: 3124
Height: 36.1cm

  • The Vérité collection, by repute.
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th April 2010, lot 1859.

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: HK$25,000,000
Price realized: HK$29,912,500

A Magnificent and Monumental Gilt-bronze Standing Figure of Maitreya
Yuan Dynasty – Hongwu Period

Lot no.: 3135
Height: 116.8cm
Provenance: Sotheby's New York, 21st September 2007, lot 24.
Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: HK$20,000,000
Price realized: HK$24,100,000

A Magnificent Large Gilt-copper Figure of Manjushri
Nepal, Malla Period, 14th Century

Lot no.: 3122
Height: 29.1cm
Gifted by the King of Nepal, HM Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, to the Canadian Ambassador HE Chester A. Ronning, 1954-1965, and thence by descent.
Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer price: HK$14,500,000
Price realized: HK$17,500,000


Auction summary
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: The Heart of Tantra – Buddhist Art Including Property From the Nyingjei Lam Collection
Sale no.: HK0749
Auction date: 2017/10/3
Sale total: HK$130,593,750
No. of lots: 48
Sold: 29
Unsold: 19
Average price per lot: HK$4,503,233
Sell-through rate: 61%
(All prices realized have included buyer’s premium unless otherwise specified)