Trio of Asian Buddhist relics valued at US$3.7m to shine at New York sale

During this season’s Asia Week New York, a wide range of Buddhist figures will be featured at Sotheby’s Dharma & Tantra Sale. Topping the sale is a large copper and silver alloy Avalokiteshvara figure from 11th-century Tibet. It is estimated between US$2 and 3 million dollars.

Alongside this work, a 16th-century Chinese large, inscribed gilt bronze sculpture of Panjarnata Mahakala and a thangka from circa 12th- to 13th-century Tibet will also be offered. Collectively, all three oeuvres are estimated between US$3.7 and 5.2 million dollars.

Lot 108 | Large Copper and Silver Inlaid Copper Alloy Figure of Avalokiteshvara | Tibet

Created during 11th century
Height: 59.7 cm

  • Sotheby's New York, 23rd March 2000, Lot 24
  • Property from an Important American Private Collection

Estimate: US$2,000,000 – 3,000,000

This commanding statue of Avalokiteshvara Padmapani epitomises the Kashmiri style of Western Tibetan Buddhist art during the 11th century. The artist was familiar with the subtleties of Kashmiri sculpture, where many elements remained consistent for centuries. The crown’s form, for instance – with three large panels – each consisting of a beaded crescent-shaped element with jewelled finials supporting a central gem-set cluster and long billowing textile crown ties was established in Kashmir as early as the 8th century.

Located in modern-day India and Pakistan, Kashmir was at the crossroads of many different cultures – absorbing artistic influences from places such as Gandhara, Central Asia, Persia. A historically important place for Buddhism, it continues to attract many monks to seek Buddhist teachings. From Kashmir, Buddhism spread through to neighbouring Ladakh, then to Tibet and China.

A similar figure can be found in a 11th-century Padmapani | Tibet, Pritzker Collection

The treatment of the lotus flower at Avalokiteshvara’s shoulder is unusual – lobed rather than smooth petals like those on Kashmiri statues – such as the Padmapani in the Pritzker Collection. Certain similarities between the present example and the Pritzker Padmapani are evident – including the unusual secondary earrings applied towards the top of the lobes, crown, long crown ties reaching the shoulders, and the intense facial expressions. The posture is similar, with the left leg turned outwards and slightly forward, but the hand gestures differ.

In this present sculpture, the right hand is raised in a gesture of fearlessness (abhaya mudra) and the left stretches down with thumb and forefinger pressed together – holding the stem of the lotus that flowers at the shoulder.

Lot 123 | Large Inscribed Gilt Bronze Figure of Panjarnata Mahakala | China

Fifteen-character inscription dated to Zhengde jiaxu year, corresponding to 1514
Height: 30.7 cm

  • French Private Collection

Estimate: US$1,200,000 – 1,500,000

Powerfully cast, this sculpture is rare and appears to be one of only two surviving Zhengde-dated Buddhist sculptures.

In its depiction of the ferocious Dharma protector Mahakala, and significance of the dated inscription, it encapsulates the importance of Tibetan Buddhism at the court of the Zhengde Emperor (r. 1505-1521), who was himself a keen practitioner. Panjarnata Mahakala, the ferocious protector of the Buddha's teachings and wrathful emanation of Avalokiteshvara, is depicted standing with knees bent on the outstretched body of a crowned deity above a double-lotus throne – holding a kartrika (knife) and kapala (skull) and opulently attired in luxuriant jewellery consisting of a skull crown of five leaves joined by strings of pearls with coiled snake earrings, bracelets and arm bands.

Portrait of Emperor Zhengde | National Palace Museum, Taipei

Another gilt Buddhist statue from the Zhengde period. From its inscription, we know that this piece was commissioned by Jiao Ning, a eunuch in charge of the Imperial stables | Asian Art Museum, San Francisco 

On top of the base, the inscription can be translated as: 'Commissioned by the Eunuch Wu Liang, custodian of the Imperial stables in the jiaxu year of the Zhengde period.' Wu Liang was a manager of all financial matters relating to military affairs at the Imperial court. Only one other Zhengde-dated gilt figure is recorded, an image of the Buddha's disciple Ananda found in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Its inscription states that it was commissioned by the Eunuch Jiao Ning, another custodian of the Imperial stables in the same year 1514.

Although the Zhengde Emperor was known as a fervent practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, no Zhengde-reign marked images are recorded. In contrast to the Yongle (1402-1424) and Xuande (1425-1435) reigns, there was no large-scale production of gilt images created for use at court or as gifts to high-ranking Tibetan lamas, so it may be that only the highest-ranking eunuchs at the court had the resources and wealth to commission what would have been expensive devotional figures, possibly as gifts for the Emperor.

The choice of Mahakala as the subject matter of this commission is significant – demonstrating the extent to which even in the Zhengde period, Mahakala retained an important role as a protector deity for the military and was revered at the Imperial court.

Lot 112 | Large Silver and Copper Inlaid Copper Alloy Figure of Avalokiteshvara | Tibet

Created during the 13th century
Height: 67.3 cm

  • Sotheby's New York, 23rd March 2000, Lot 78
  • Property from an Important American Private Collection

Estimate: US$500,000 – 700,000

This Tibetan sculpture of eight-armed, ten-headed Avalokiteshvara is commanding in stature, yet exquisite in its casting and well-preserved. In Tibetan art, an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara is a popular form of the bodhisattva. In this case, it is uncertain whether this present figure has ten heads as a unique depiction or whether one of the extra heads were damaged.

It depicts the patron bodhisattva of Tibet standing tall with two main hands held together in a gesture of reverence (anjali mudra) – enclosing a copper-inlaid jewel, the remaining six arms depicted radiating around the figure. The deity is portrayed wearing a long dhoti intricately incised with a foliate hem decorated with quatrefoil medallions inlaid with copper and silver, the pleated drapery suspended from the waist has a large central stylised rosette with silver- and copper-inlaid petals. 

The elaborate incised sash across the chest is ornamented with silver and copper circular rosettes. Richly adorned with jewellery, the figure also consists of silver necklaces inset with turquoise and coral, beaded disk earrings and five-leaf crowns. Ten heads are arranged in four tiers, where the uppermost depicts a dharmapala (dharma protector) with bulging copper-inlaid eyes. The primary face is cast with the utmost sensitivity, framed by the gentle curves of incised arched eyebrows above the silver-inlaid eyes and copper-inlaid lips.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 127 | Gilt Bronze Figure of Kasyapa | China

Created during the Liao dynasty (916-1125 CE)
Height: 24 cm

  • Michael C. Hughes, New York

Estimate: US$500,000 – 700,000

Lot 115 | Thangka depicting a mandala of Vajravarahi with Taklung Kagyu Lineage | Tibet

Created during the late 12th / early 13th century
43.5 x 35.3 cm

  • Collection of Lionel (1943-2017) and Danielle Fournier
  • Christie's Paris, 12th December 2018, Lot 13 (Sold: €607,500)

Estimate: US$350,000 – 550,000 

Lot 140 | Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha | Korea

Created during the United Silla period, circa 8th century CE
Height: 29 cm
Estimate: US$300,000 – 500,000

Lot 118 | Gilt Bronze Figure of Mahasthamaprapta | China

Created during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)
Height: 18.2 cm

  • M. Bing, Paris, 6th October 1909

Estimate: US$250,000 – 300,000

Lot 130 | Bronze Figure of Ascetic Shakyamuni Buddha | China

Created during the Yuan (1279-1368) / Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Height: 17.2 cm

  • Moreau Gobard, Paris

Estimate: US$40,000 – 60,000  

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Dharma & Tantra
Date and Time: 20 September 2022 | 10am (New York local time)
Number of lots: 41