A 15th-century 12.8-cm silver figure of legendary yogi Milarepa fetches US$2.1m at Sotheby's

During this season's Asia Week New York, Sotheby's presented a rare 15th-century Tibetan figure of Milarepa – one of the most famous and beloved Tibetan Buddhist masters and yogi – for charitable cause.

Measuring 12.8 cm in height, the parcel-gilt silver and gilt-copper figure with a delicate inscribed lotus petal base eventually sold for US$2.1 million after fees, with proceeds going to support Asian charitable projects for education and medical services. 

While the final price appears to be a touch high in comparison to top-dollar Buddhist sculptures, it is astonishing for a figure of such modest stature to command such a high price.

Lot 108 | The Nyingjei Lam parcel-gilt silver and gilt-copper figure of Milarepa
Tibet, 15th century
Height: 12.8 cm

  • The collection of Nyingjei Lam

Estimate: US$1,200,000 - 1,800,000
Hammer Price: US$1,700,000
Sold: US$2,117,000

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Indian and Himalayan Art, including Masterpieces from the Nyingjei Lam Collection
Date: 21 March 2023

Opening on a bid of US$1 million, the present lot was hammered after seven bids for US$1.7 million. After fees, it sold for US$2.1 million to a telephone bidder with paddle number L0027 represented by Henry Howard-Sneyd. 

Henry Howard-Sneyd is Chairman of Asian Art, Europe and Americas based between London and New York, and the house's lead auctioneer globally in Asian Art – though the present sale was carried out by his colleague.

Milarepa (1038-1122) remains one of Tibet’s most charismatic saints, whose biography has inspired generations of devotees. He was best known as a Tibetan Buddhist master, a yogin, and a spiritual singer-poet. Up to the present, there are numerous books and movies about the life of the saint. 

Yet, before devoting himself to Buddhism and spiritual practice, Milarepa was in fact a teenage murderer who had committed crimes. 

There are numerous books and movies about the life of Milarepa

Milarepa was born into an affluent family in western Tibet, where he and his younger sister were raised with love and lived with his parents in a mansion that had many servants. Unfortunately, when he turned seven, his father passed away, and all their properties were stripped by Milarepa's uncle and aunt.

In order to seek revenge, Milarepa began to study black magic, murdering thirteen-something people attending a wedding feast at their relative's house. Then, at his mother’s insistence, he unleashed a powerful storm across his homeland, destroying the village's crops just as they were about to be reaped. 

A kind-hearted man to the core, Milarepa was overwhelmed by remorse and came to regret his terrible crimes. In the hope of purifying his actions, he turned to Buddhist path and gained acceptance as a full-fledged disciple under the guidance of Tibetan master Marpa. 

After years of difficult apprenticeship with Marpa, he finally attained his long-sought goal of spiritual awakening, and henceforth praised his beloved guru in song and verse. Indeed, over a lifetime Milarepa is famously credited with composing one-hundred-thousand songs.

Milarepa was renowned for wearing only a simple white cotton shawl, living as an ascetic oblivious to the cold. And that is how he is portrayed in this exceptional Tibetan statue, with the cotton shawl draped over the left shoulder revealing his meditation strap (yogapatta) slung across the body. The strap is parcel gilt in subtle contrast to the silver body.

Milarepa’s face is painted gold according to Tibetan ritual practice with color highlighting eyes and mouth, the lips opened slightly as if in song. A tightly rolled prayer scroll is inserted in the left earlobe, while an antelope skin which symbolizes status is laid over the lotus pedestal. 

Compared with other Buddhist sculptures, Milarepa is depicted in a far more relaxed posture. His head is cocked, leaning into his cupped right hand, fingers curled gently, suggesting that he hears even the slightest sound within himself, or a hand gesture reminiscent of ancient Tibetan singing while riding on horses. 

What sets this figure of Milarepa is, firstly, the materials employed. While most of the Buddhist sculptures were made of gilt-copper alloy, the present one is of parcel-gilt silver and gilt-copper. In ancient times, silver is much more valuable than alloy. 

Also, not only is the sealing-plate beneath intact, the richly gilded copper base is beautifully inscribed with a visvavajra – a protective symbol – and a further two-line inscription around the circular upper rim and the baseplate:

  • Inscription along the lotus petal base | This silver image of Mila[repa], king of the sacred doctrine, was set up at Nyüg Peak by the monk Gagi Wangpo. Through this virtuous act may [all beings] who have been my mother realise the abiding nature of the mind, and may they achieve [the level of] Vajradhara, embodiment of the four Buddha bodies! May good auspices prevail!
  • Inscription on the baseplate | Homage to the venerable Mila Zhepei Dorje! May my kind mother Sonam Zemo attain Buddhahood!

A thangka depicting episodes from the life of Milarepa, Eastern Tibet, 18th century | Another lot from the collection of Nyingjei Lam, Sold: US$2.54 million

At this sale of Himalayan art, eight lots came from the collection of Nyingjei Lam, including the abovementioned silver figure and a thangka depicting episodes from the life of Milarepa (see photo above). 

Nyingjei Lam, meaning 'the Path of Compassion', is a renowned collection in the Buddhist art circle. The collector is an Irish-American who has spent most of his life living among the Chinese. Interestingly, despite being drawn to Tibetan Buddhist art, he is a devoted Roman Catholic. As for the reasons behind his collecting journey, here are the words by the collector himself: 

"Looking back over forty years ago to when I began to form the collection, it was a combination of things that drew me towards Tibetan Buddhist and related art. The first of these was the compassionate smiles that radiated from the faces of many of the statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, saints and lamas that I saw. To me, these were not foolish, empty smiles, but rather smiles that reflected an inner freedom, peace and joy, while also bringing peace and joy to the hearts and minds of their beholders.

In my childhood I had seen such smiles of ecstasy on the faces of the statues and paintings of Jesus, our Blessed Lady, the angels and the saints and I had learnt that the central message of Christianity is love, an unselfish, all-encompassing love, an unconditional giving of oneself to God and one’s fellow-beings that appears foolish to many, but which in reality brings a freedom, joy and wealth of spirit that no material objects could possibly bring.

Prompted by the smiles on their faces, I read all that I could about Buddhism and especially Tibetan Buddhism. Soon I discovered that just as in Christianity, in Buddhism the source, the starting point, the path to true freedom and happiness is love, in this case a love called ‘compassion’ which is defined as an active striving to free all beings, including ourselves, from suffering. It is this path of compassion that leads to true happiness and enlightenment."