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Sublime and Beautiful – and Questionable Provenance – Christie’s Asian Art Sale in NY March 2014

March 20, 2014
Lot 1600. AN IMPORTANT AND IMPRESSIVE GREY SCHIST FIGURE OF A BODHISATTVA  GANDHARA, 2ND/3RD CENTURY  The bodhisattva is standing in a relaxed pose, with his weight resting on his right leg and his left slightly bent. He is clad in a dhoti tied at the waist and a sanghati with cascading folds of drapery. The bodhisattva is adorned with a close-fitting torque and braided necklace with a crescent-shaped amulet. His handsome face is very finely carved with a bow-shaped mouth, aquiline nose and almond-shaped eyes, the forehead centered by a raised urna. The hair is arranged in thick, wavy locks and tied over the ushnisha. 38¼ in. (97 cm.) high  Estimate: $600,000-800,000 Provenance Private collection, Japan, by 1985. Private collection, New York, acquired at Christie's New York, 17 October 2001, lot 4.

Lot 1600. AN IMPORTANT AND IMPRESSIVE GREY SCHIST FIGURE OF A BODHISATTVA
GANDHARA, 2ND/3RD CENTURY
The bodhisattva is standing in a relaxed pose, with his weight resting on his right leg and his left slightly bent. He is clad in a dhoti tied at the waist and a sanghati with cascading folds of drapery. The bodhisattva is adorned with a close-fitting torque and braided necklace with a crescent-shaped amulet. His handsome face is very finely carved with a bow-shaped mouth, aquiline nose and almond-shaped eyes, the forehead centered by a raised urna. The hair is arranged in thick, wavy locks and tied over the ushnisha.
38¼ in. (97 cm.) high
Estimate: $600,000-800,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of $840,000 ($1,013,000 with the buyer’s premium)
Provenance
Private collection, Japan, by 1985.
Private collection, New York, acquired at Christie’s New York, 17 October 2001, lot 4.

There’s some big news coming out of the Asia Week auctions in New York, including the sale of the “Min” Fanglei, a massive ancient Chinese bronze vessel, at Christie’s in a private transaction for more than $30 million.  That was followed this morning by The Sublime and the Beautiful: Asian Masterpieces of Devotion, which did include some sublime works – including several with no pre-1970 provenance.   The “pre-1970″ refers to the date of an international UNESCO convention aimed at halting the looting of antiquities. As the New York Times reported: ‘In 2004 the Association of Art Museum Directors declared “member museums should not acquire” any undocumented works “that were removed after November 1970, regardless of any applicable statutes of limitation.”’ Numerous American museums – including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and the Getty in Los Angeles – have been forced to return looted antiquities to their host countries.”

Shouldn’t private collectors adhere to the same standards? Apparently not as today’s sale and others demonstrate.  Collectors are still willing to take a chance, ignore international news reports about looting in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Italy, Greece, Egypt and elsewhere and hope/assume/pretend the poorly-provenanced work they own is OK.

The sale made a hair under $19 million ($18,985,250), with 21 lots sold from 33 offered.  Here are four items that sold despite having no pre-1970 provenance, or in one case no published provenance whatsoever, beginning with the first item, an elegant Gandhara Bodhisattva estimated at $600,000-800,000.  Despite a provenance that only goes back to 1985, a US private collector bidding by telephone paid $840,000 ($1,103,000 with the buyer’s premium).

Lot 1600. Detail.

Lot 1600. Detail.

From the lot notes:

The ancient region of Gandhara, straddling the Khyber Pass in what is now eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, was for centuries an important center of trade and commerce. Its position at the crossroads of Central Asia meant that it was exposed to the goods and ideas from India, China, and the Mediterranean world. In the centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, the region came under Hellenistic control after Alexander the Great annexed Gandhara to his expansive empire; following his death, the region was controlled by a succession of kings of mixed Greek and Central Asian descent. Buddhism was already well established during this time, with the Indo-Greek King Menander and the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka both noted proponents of the faith.
It was not until the reign of the Kushans in the first centuries CE, however, that profound changes in the religious art of the region were realized. The Kushans were nomadic horsemen from the steppes of Central Asia. Sometime around 160 BCE, they were pushed out of their homeland in Western China, and after more than a century of migration ended up seizing power in the regions of Gandhara and Northern India. Astute rulers, the Kushans allowed religious freedom for their subjects and adopted local Hellenistic and Indian traditions, including the Buddhist faith. Prior to their rule, the presence of Buddha was depicted in art through conspicuous symbols such as the dharmachakra (wheel of law) or his footprints; upon their ascension to power, however, the first images of Buddha in anthropomorphic form began to appear.
In Gandhara, the sculptural tradition was still heavily influenced by the earlier Hellenistic style. Local artisans favored the principles of figural naturalism, in particular the athletic and heroic idealized body. The depiction of the Indiandhoti and sanghati, like that of the Greek chiton and himation, offered the artisans an opportunity to reproduce voluminous folds of drapery with wondrous aplomb, as is evident in the present work. The deeply carved locks of curly hair are a further indication of the artisan’s sculptural élan.

Lot 1608. A RARE AND IMPORTANT STONE FIGURE OF A MOTHER GODDESS  NORTH INDIA, ALMORA, 9TH CENTURY  This exquisitely carved and finely detailed sculpture depicts a goddess with her attendant. She is an idealized beauty with lotus-shaped eyes framed by delicately arched brows and centered by an incised spiral. Her lips are full and bow-shaped. Her finely incised hair is arranged in a simple twist above her left shoulder, with small curls escaping at her temples. She wears a tiara centered by a foliate element and with pendants terminating in floral buds and peepul leaves, both of which are echoed in her jewelry elsewhere. Her ample curves are highlighted by the multiple necklaces swaying over her breasts and belly, and a pendant girdle that encircles her hips. She stands with her weight on her right leg and her left turned out, causing her hip to sway to the right. She wears a long striated dhoti incised with flowers. A sash with floral motifs still encircles her upper right arm and shoulders. The attendant wears her hair in an identical manner and is clad in a dhoti and scarf with corresponding motifs. She holds a water pot and what appears to be a flower bud, flywhisk or small club in her raised hand. 26¾ in. (68 cms.) high  Estimate: $800,000-1,000,000. Provenance An important and distinguished private collection, Switzerland, before 1985.

Lot 1608. A RARE AND IMPORTANT STONE FIGURE OF A MOTHER GODDESS
NORTH INDIA, ALMORA, 9TH CENTURY
This exquisitely carved and finely detailed sculpture depicts a goddess with her attendant. She is an idealized beauty with lotus-shaped eyes framed by delicately arched brows and centered by an incised spiral. Her lips are full and bow-shaped. Her finely incised hair is arranged in a simple twist above her left shoulder, with small curls escaping at her temples. She wears a tiara centered by a foliate element and with pendants terminating in floral buds and peepul leaves, both of which are echoed in her jewelry elsewhere. Her ample curves are highlighted by the multiple necklaces swaying over her breasts and belly, and a pendant girdle that encircles her hips. She stands with her weight on her right leg and her left turned out, causing her hip to sway to the right. She wears a long striated dhoti incised with flowers. A sash with floral motifs still encircles her upper right arm and shoulders. The attendant wears her hair in an identical manner and is clad in a dhoti and scarf with corresponding motifs. She holds a water pot and what appears to be a flower bud, flywhisk or small club in her raised hand.
26¾ in. (68 cms.) high
Estimate: $800,000-1,000,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of $850,000 ($1,025,000 with the buyer’s premium)
Provenance
An important and distinguished private collection, Switzerland, before 1985.

A few minutes later the story repeated itself with lot 1608, also with a provenance that goes back to c. 1985, hammered at $850,000 to a European private collector bidding by telephone ($1,025,000 with the buyer’s premium).

Lot 1608. Detail.

Lot 1608. Detail.

From the lot notes:

This superbly carved sculpture evolves from the Gupta stylistic tradition, with flowing lines, well-rounded forms, and sensuous expression of the lips. The jewelry of the goddess is particularly noteworthy in identifying the date and region from which the sculpture comes. In addition to the armbands, anklets and multiple necklaces, she wears two different earrings, a hoop made of flower buds in her right ear and a thick foliate circle in her left. Her girdle is composed of a floral belt with two lion or kirttimukha masks at front issuing loops from their mouths, and two chains hanging straight down over her thighs, both terminating in corresponding peepul leaves as found in her tiara. The contrast within her jewelry of the soft, floral elements on her right and the bolder, more rugged motifs on her left could indicate that she is a matrika, a Hindu goddess who is the counterpart to a male figure and embodies both male and female aspects within herself.

Lot 1616. A POLYCHROME- AND GILDED-WOOD FIGURE OF NYOIRIN KANNON, "THE BODHISATTVA WHO GRANTS DESIRES" JAPAN, KAMAKURA PERIOD, WITH DOCUMENTATION DATED 1304 CE  The "bodhisattva who grants desires" (Sanskrit, Cintamani-chakra-Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) is carved from a single block of wood, for the body, and six separately carved and inserted partially replaced arms on a separately assembled lotiform throne. The figure is shown seated in the posture of "royal ease" with the left leg folded horizontally to expose the sole of the foot, on which the right foot rests.The right thigh supports the elbow of the one of the deity's six arms, the hand touching the right cheek of the inclined head in a gesture of contemplation. The lower of the three right arms holds a rosary and the upper cups, as if to extend, a lotus jewel, the nyoi hoju (cintamani) that bestows wishes. The main left arm steadies the figure on the lotus throne. The raised left arm bent at the elbow has a hand with four clasped fingers and index finger pointed upward, which supports another attribute, the Wheel of the Law, or rin, forming a syllable of the deity's name. The third left hand clasps the stalk of a blossoming lotus, symbolic of spontaneous generation (the lotus reproduces from its matrix not soil), the purity and perfection of the Buddha and the mercy and compassion associated with Kannon (Avalokiteshvara). The delicate features of the face, painted black with gold overlayer, have a black mustache and forehead scallop above the inlaid glass urna between the arched brows. The glass eyes are white with black pupils. Pendulous earlobes and elaborate black coiffure frame the face. The hair on the back of the head is carved in narrow vertical lobes. The figure is clothed in a skirt that ripples onto the lap and legs in gentle pleats and in a shoulder scarf, carved to the middle of the back in a series of wide, U-shaped pleats. The drapery shows areas of meticulous gilded diaperwork, particularly evident on the edges of the scarf, central fold and over the knees of the robe. The arms are black with slight traces of gold coloration. The lotus throne is comprised of a bracket-footed double plinth in the outline of a lotus flower that is embellished on the edges with flower reserves in red, black and gold pigment below a support of lotus lappets applied with black lacquer. The uppermost plinth supporting the figure is carved with overlapping green lotus leaves detailed with gold veins. The reverses of the central lacquered support and upper green lotus support are carved smooth and the back surface of the lotus support is cut with a small rectangle to accommodate the peg of a separate mandorla. Figure 8 1/8 in. (20.5cm.) high; figure with pedestal 14½ in. (36.9 cm.) high With accompanying shari (interior relics of stones wrapped in paper symbolizing the cremated remains of the Buddha) and votive documentation mounted on two handscrolls and with later mandorla and lacquered-wood shrine. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. NO PROVENANCE

Lot 1616. A POLYCHROME- AND GILDED-WOOD FIGURE OF NYOIRIN KANNON, “THE BODHISATTVA WHO GRANTS DESIRES”
JAPAN, KAMAKURA PERIOD, WITH DOCUMENTATION DATED 1304 CE
The “bodhisattva who grants desires” (Sanskrit, Cintamani-chakra-Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) is carved from a single block of wood, for the body, and six separately carved and inserted partially replaced arms on a separately assembled lotiform throne. The figure is shown seated in the posture of “royal ease” with the left leg folded horizontally to expose the sole of the foot, on which the right foot rests.The right thigh supports the elbow of the one of the deity’s six arms, the hand touching the right cheek of the inclined head in a gesture of contemplation. The lower of the three right arms holds a rosary and the upper cups, as if to extend, a lotus jewel, the nyoi hoju (cintamani) that bestows wishes. The main left arm steadies the figure on the lotus throne. The raised left arm bent at the elbow has a hand with four clasped fingers and index finger pointed upward, which supports another attribute, the Wheel of the Law, or rin, forming a syllable of the deity’s name. The third left hand clasps the stalk of a blossoming lotus, symbolic of spontaneous generation (the lotus reproduces from its matrix not soil), the purity and perfection of the Buddha and the mercy and compassion associated with Kannon (Avalokiteshvara). The delicate features of the face, painted black with gold overlayer, have a black mustache and forehead scallop above the inlaid glass urna between the arched brows. The glass eyes are white with black pupils. Pendulous earlobes and elaborate black coiffure frame the face. The hair on the back of the head is carved in narrow vertical lobes. The figure is clothed in a skirt that ripples onto the lap and legs in gentle pleats and in a shoulder scarf, carved to the middle of the back in a series of wide, U-shaped pleats. The drapery shows areas of meticulous gilded diaperwork, particularly evident on the edges of the scarf, central fold and over the knees of the robe. The arms are black with slight traces of gold coloration. The lotus throne is comprised of a bracket-footed double plinth in the outline of a lotus flower that is embellished on the edges with flower reserves in red, black and gold pigment below a support of lotus lappets applied with black lacquer. The uppermost plinth supporting the figure is carved with overlapping green lotus leaves detailed with gold veins. The reverses of the central lacquered support and upper green lotus support are carved smooth and the back surface of the lotus support is cut with a small rectangle to accommodate the peg of a separate mandorla.
Figure 8 1/8 in. (20.5cm.) high; figure with pedestal 14½ in. (36.9 cm.) high
With accompanying shari (interior relics of stones wrapped in paper symbolizing the cremated remains of the Buddha) and votive documentation mounted on two handscrolls and with later mandorla and lacquered-wood shrine.
Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of $280,000 ($341,000 with the buyer’s premium)
NO PROVENANCE

Even with no published provenance, Lot 1616, a 14th century Japanese Bodhisattva, pulled down a hammer price of $280,000 ($341,000 with the buyer’s premium) to a telephone bidder.

Lot 1622. A RARE AND SUPERBLY CAST GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA  CHINA, MING DYNASTY, YONGLE SIX-CHARACTER MARK INSCRIBED IN A LINE AND OF THE PERIOD (1403-1425) The bodhisattva is shown seated in lalitasana with the right foot supported on a lotus stem that projects from the front of the double-lotus base just above a rare, additional narrow band of circle-centered leaves. The right hand, which rests on the edge of the base, holds one of the two stems that rise to the shoulders from the sides of the base, while the raised left hand holds the Book of Wisdom. The graceful figure wears an elegantly draped dhoti secured with a beaded, festoon-hung sash, beaded necklaces, armlets, large circular earrings and a ribbon-tied tiara with eight foliate points that surrounds a seated figure of Amitabha Buddha and the artfully arranged chignon. The reign mark, Da Ming Yongle nian shi, "Bestowed in the Great Ming Yongle reign," is inscribed in a line at the front of the base. The figure is richly gilded, and the base is sealed with a plate inscribed with a double vajra. 8¾ in. (22.3 cm.) high  Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Provenance Christie's New York, 21 March 2001, lot 88.

Lot 1622. A RARE AND SUPERBLY CAST GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
CHINA, MING DYNASTY, YONGLE SIX-CHARACTER MARK INSCRIBED IN A LINE AND OF THE PERIOD (1403-1425)
The bodhisattva is shown seated in lalitasana with the right foot supported on a lotus stem that projects from the front of the double-lotus base just above a rare, additional narrow band of circle-centered leaves. The right hand, which rests on the edge of the base, holds one of the two stems that rise to the shoulders from the sides of the base, while the raised left hand holds the Book of Wisdom. The graceful figure wears an elegantly draped dhoti secured with a beaded, festoon-hung sash, beaded necklaces, armlets, large circular earrings and a ribbon-tied tiara with eight foliate points that surrounds a seated figure of Amitabha Buddha and the artfully arranged chignon. The reign mark, Da Ming Yongle nian shi, “Bestowed in the Great Ming Yongle reign,” is inscribed in a line at the front of the base. The figure is richly gilded, and the base is sealed with a plate inscribed with a double vajra.
8¾ in. (22.3 cm.) high
Estimate: $600,000-800,000. This lot sold for $2.2 million ($2,629,000 with the buyer’s premium)
Provenance
Christie’s New York, 21 March 2001, lot 88.

Lot 1622 a Ming Dynasty Avalokiteshvara, with a provenance that only dates to 2001,  topped its $800,000 high estimate and hammered for $2.2 million ($2,629,000 with the buyer’s premium) to a US private collector bidding in the room (true same bidder also purchased Lot 1611, a gilt-bronze Buddha Amitabha from China for $1,565,000 with the buyer’s premium).

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