Sotheby’s Withdrew Chinese Buddha Statue Which Could Be Lost Relic from Longmen Grottoes

Buddhist sculpture is a highly sought category in Asia Week in New York as auction houses pulled off satisfactory performance in the sales of ancient Buddhist sculpture. Yet, selling Buddhist sculpture can be a sensitive matter that needs to be handled very carefully. Sotheby’s has recently removed a head of Buddha on suspicion of being stolen from Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Central’s China Henan province.

The head of Buddha from the Tang Dynasty was originally offered at Sotheby’s Junkunc: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in New York on 12 September. It was estimated at US$2m-3m, carrying the highest estimate among all 18 lots featured at the sale.

Longmen Grottoes

Sotheby’s withdrew the Buddha head before the sale began due to the controversy regarding the origin of the statue. There was a heated discussion on China social media that the statue is suspected to be a lost relic from Longmen Grottoes, which houses 100,000 of ancient statues of Buddha and his disciples. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site situated in Luoyang, Central China's Henan province.   

Some people noticed that the Buddha head resembles the Buddhist statue in an image that was taken in ‘Jinan cave’ of Longmen Grottoes. The photo was captured by Japanese scholars Tokiwa Daijo and Sekino Tadashi during their expedition to China in the 1920s. According to a cultural relic enthusiast who is familiar with the Longmen Grottoes, it should be the cave 1720, instead of the ‘Jinan cave’, that is shown in the image.

The Buddhist head alone is 70cm tall, so you can imagine how enormous the whole Buddhist sculpture is

Image of the present cave 1720

They found some photos of the present cave 1720 and they are basically the same as the photo taken by the Japanese scholars. The only difference is that the head of Buddha statue is now missing in cave 1720. After making thorough comparisons between them and the photo in Sotheby’s catalogue, they found some striking resemblances as follow:

1. The arrangement and number of the curls of hair above the head are the same.
2. The white dot on the tip of the nose
3. The black line on the brow
4. The area around the lower lip is curved inward
5. The fragment of Sotheby’s Buddha head matches the body in the cave 1720

A number of resemblances suggest this head of Buddha could be a lost relic from the Longmen Grottoes. It drew Sotheby’s attention to the issue and here is the statement from the auction house.

The official statement from Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s said, ‘Only after the publication of our auction catalogue, our attention was drawn to an image of a sculpture very similar to the present work published by a Japanese photographer who documented the Longmen Caves of China in the 1920s and 30s. We and the Junkunc Family decided that the sculpture would not be included in the 12 September 2018 sale, to provide more time to review all available options.’

A person in charge of the Longmen Grottoes replied that they have learnt about this incident. They noticed that resemblances between the two but they couldn’t draw a conclusion by only looking at the photos.

Stephen Junkunc III

Stephen Junkunc, III (d.1978), was born in Budapest, Hungary. He then emigrated to Chicago as a young child. His father founded General Machinery & Manufacturing Company there in 1918. Stephen Junkunc III, the manager and part owner of the company, spent his free time forming an extraordinary collection of Chinese art.

The catalogue image of the Buddha head statue when it was auctioned in 1955

Stephen Junkunc III then became an important collector in Chinese art. He purchased many great porcelain examples from leading London dealers like Bluett & Sons, W. Dickinson & Sons, John Sparks. Junkunc once owned two pieces of rare ru ware, along with over 2,000 examples of Chinese porcelain, jade, bronzes, paintings and Buddhist sculptures.

It seems like Junkunc III was particularly fond of Buddhist sculpture of Longmen Caves. From a letter that he wrote to art dealer John Sparks, he once asked about a limestone relief fragment from the Longmen Caves showing a luohan holding a lotus blossom (image above). However, Junkunc III never managed to get this fragment. It was sold at auction to Chicago-based collectors and was later sold by Eskenazi in London. The fragment is today in the collection of Cultural Relics Bureau in Beijing.

We will have to wait for the official reply from the Longmen Grottoes to confirm whether the head of Buddha is lost relic from the site. We will keep you all updated if there is any further information. Please stay tuned.