At the Sotheby’s Hong Kong afternoon sale of fine Chinese ceramics and works of art on October 8, a gilt-bronze figure of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha from the Ming Dynasty was sold for $30 million (HK$236.44 million), with buyer’s premium. The sale set a new world auction record for Chinese sculpture.
The 15th-century statue, from the period of Yongle, was won by mainland Chinese collector Zheng Huaxing, a devout Tibetan Buddhist known for his passion for Buddhist sculptures.
“I would have paid any price for this sculpture. I am glad that it can finally be returned to its rightful place in China,” said Zheng, who attended the auction in person.
Despite the long-time presence of Buddhas in the auction market, most investors have kept them at arm’s length due to their limited knowledge about the category.
Attitudes have changed, however, as the buyers that heated up the Chinese contemporary art market to the point of boiling over are looking for a new segment, according to Bai Manlin, manager of the Buddha department of Beijing Hanhai Auction Company, one of the earliest auction houses in the country to hold Buddha-focused auctions.
Buddhas are destined to be an unusual category as they embody a diverse set of value judgments, including historic, religious, cultural and artistic.
“The list of aspects specific to Buddhas demands a keen eye from collectors in order to discern the true value of them,” said Bai.
“There are basic questions like how to determine the artistic beauty of a Buddha, whether the theme of it is rare, and how to identify whether it’s in the style of Tibetan Buddhas or that of central China,” Bai told the Global Times.
Buddhas no longer attract only foreign collectors – who have long viewed Buddhas as representations of Asian culture and have a tradition of collecting them – or domestic professionals. A wider scope of Chinese collectors are now approaching them.
With the two record-high Buddha bids (Cai Mingchao in 2006 and Zheng Huaxing this year), Buddha prices are consistently being pushed to new heights by Chinese collectors. What’s worthy of noting is that both of those two Buddhas are Yongle, which according to professionals is now one of the most valuable varieties.
Yongle Buddhas were crafted in the Yongle period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). To foster national unity, Emperor Yongle put special emphasis on connecting with the Tibetan area. Leaders from the latter regularly paid tributes to the royal court, while gold or bronze Buddhas were produced by the court to give the Tibetans in return.
“Mainly produced by the Nepalese craftsmen and artists then, gilded Yongle Buddhas are some of the best in the market now, since their craftsmanship is so exquisite that even the techniques in the later prosperous Kangqian period (under emperors Kangxi and Qianlong) during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) couldn’t possibly reach their standard, let alone modern copying techniques,” said Dong Guoqiang, president of the Beijing Council Auction Company.
There are other concerns which can help evaluate a Buddha’s worth.
“Generally those produced by imperial courts are more precious than those not since they represent the temperament of royal power,” Bai explained.
Size and style matter, too. “Buddhas which people can clearly discern and say which kind of Buddha it is have more cultural value,” Bai said.
Speaking to Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, before the sale, he described an auction market becalmed and more transparent. After the headline-hitting crazy prices of 2010-11, where the likes of the Qing dynasty “Ruislip vase” sold for £43m, he told of a return to pre-2010 prices and, in the aftermath of the tightening of credit in China, to a collector’s market after the collapse of several art funds. He saw it as a healthy sign that buyers at the top end were spread between Hong Kong, Taiwan, greater China and the west. Non-payment was no longer a serious problem, he claimed.
Most of the country’s new money will continue to come to traditional collecting categories, he believes.
“A lot of wealth is in the hands of people who are not necessarily educated but who are interested in their own roots and buying back their cultural history,” he says, pointing out that Chinese TV now airs day-long cultural programmes. Buyers relish the opportunity to buy imperial pieces and “rub shoulders with the emperors”.
Now everything is returning, including the classical Chinese furniture so admired by American collectors – and there is hardly anyone left in the west prepared to match these new prices.