Tang Marble Carving of Bodhisattva from Junkunc III Collection to Lead Sotheby’s New York Asia Week

The Junkunc collection has returned to Sotheby’s Asia week with a group of Chinese gilt-bronzes, weapons, jade animals, Buddhist sculpture. Last September, the sale of the first part of the collection made headlines after a head of Buddha estimated at US$2m-3m was removed from the sale on suspicion of being stolen from Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Central’s China Henan province.

Limestone head of Buddha, Tang dynasty from the Junkunc collection (right) and the head stolen from Longmen Grottoes (right)

Stephen Junkunc III was one of the great Chinese art collectors. His collection at its height numbered over 2,000 examples of Chinese porcelain, jade, bronzes, paintings and Buddhist sculptures. Junkunc III once owned two examples of the fabled Ru ware, one of them was sold for an eye-watering price of almost US$1.6m at Christie’s to the prominent collector Au Bak Ling in 1992. 

Stephen Junkunc III was an important collector in Chinese art

Stephen Junkunc III was born in Budapest, Hungary. He then emigrated to Chicago as a young child. With the outbreak of World War II, the company founded by his father was converted to begin manufacturing various aircraft parts. Stephen Junkunc III, the manager and part owner of the company, spent his free time forming an extraordinary collection of Chinese art. Stephen Junkunc III then became an important collector in Chinese art. He purchased many great porcelain examples from leading London dealers.

A large and rare white marble carving of Bodhisattva, Tang dynasty

Back to the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s New York, the centrepiece is a white marble carving of Bodhisattva from Tang dynasty. Estimated at US$600,000-800,000, the carving was formerly in the collection of Cleveland Museum of Art. The sculpture was featured in a short article from 1915 in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art with the following description:

"Is there anything wanting in the dignity of this figure, in the grandeur of conception, in the sculptural effect, in the proportion, or in the adornments which so closely resemble the real? Here we have something concrete, and not merely a strange expression of foreign religious thought. We readily associate tenderness, compassion and mercy with this beautiful god. Rather than lamenting the left hand which is gone, let us look at the softness of the brow where the hair is artfully caught back under the headpiece, at the fullness of the cheek and neck, and the gracefully draped ropes of jewels. Is it not beautiful!"

The present piece illustrated in The Cleveland Museum of Art, Catalogue of the Inaugural Exhibition

This figure spans the aesthetic of the Sui and Tang dynasty, when a more naturalistic approach to depictions of Buddhist deities was gradually adopted. After a long period of cultural and military disunion, China was first unified under the Sui dynasty in 581, and in 618 the general Li Yuan founded the Tang dynasty. From the early years of the Tang dynasty, Buddhism was supported by the Imperial court, who actively sponsored major building projects and encouraged monks to travel abroad and bring back sacred scriptures.

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705), in particular, sponsored the building of several important caves and the monumental sculptures of the Fengxian Temple at Longmen. Empress Wu sought to draw parallels between her Imperial court and the Buddhist hierarchy in an effort to impart a spiritual significance to her rule. Sculptures of the period embody the new Tang style, and it is in this stylistic context that this figure stands firmly. A keen observation of human anatomy and the natural world is evident in the depiction of these figures’ facial features, the subtle movement of their bodies and natural sway of their garments. Figures appear imbued with physicality and sensitivity not present in their Sui counterparts.

It was under the Tang dynasty that Buddhism reached its most flourishing phase. The years of cultural and political division that accompanied dynastic changes from the fall of the Han through the establishment of the Sui and Tang dynasties, gradually led to the rise of Pure Land Buddhism.

A large and rare white marble carving of a bodhisattva, Tang dynasty

Lot no.: 120
Height: 94cm

  • Collection of Ralph King (1855-1926).
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, from 1915.
  • William H. Wolff, New York, circa 1965.
  • Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

Other highlights

A Rare Han-style Pale Green Jade Cylindrical Cup
Song - Ming Dynasty

Lot no.: 136
Height: 8.7cm

  • Fritz Low-Beer & Co., New York, 6th April 1950.
  • Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000

An Exceptionally Rare Yellow and Russet Jade Figure of a Mythical Toad
Six Dynasties

Lot no.: 106
Height: 4.7cm
Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).
Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

An Exceptional Gilt-bronze Dragon
Six Dynasties

Lot no.: 116
Height: 4.7cm

  • Tonying & Co., New York, 15th February 1946.
  • Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).

Estimate: US$100,000 - 150,000

A Sancai-glazed Pottery Amphora
Tang Dynasty

Lot no.: 123
Height: 33cm

  • Warren E. Cox, New York, 7th December 1959.
  • Collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).

Estimate: US$6,000 - 8,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Junkunc: Arts of Ancient China
Lots offered: 44

  • 14 - 15 March 2019|10am - 5pm
  • 16 - 17 March 2019|10am - 6pm
  • 18 March 2019|10am - 5pm

Auction: 2019/3/19|10am