Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Looking at Buddha

Daphne Lange Rosenzweig,
PhD, ISA CAPP

Buddha = an awakened one (one who has achieved enlightenment)


Appraisers frequently encounter Buddhist art works in every form, from goldfish tank ornaments and modern cast concrete potbellied garden statues, to museum-quality textiles, paintings, and sculptures. The current Buddhist art market is very active, rising rapidly for extraordinary works, and with a constant presence for lesser works on eBay. Identifying when a work is Buddhist, judging its quality, and assigning a value estimate can be difficult. This brief article is designed to help appraisers understand these challenges.

Describing a Buddha


Buddhism is an extremely complex religion, born over 2,500 years ago in what is now southern Nepal, nourished in north India, then split into various schools and developing into today's active international Buddhist community.

Just as in the early centuries of Christian art, initially, the Historical Buddha (Sakyamuni, born as Prince Siddhartha) was not depicted figurally, but rather with scenes or attributes associated with the primary image ("aniconic" art). As centuries following the venerated figure's lifetime and people's spiritual and philosophic needs from religious art altered, the Buddha himself began to be portrayed ("iconic art"). The anonymous sculptors and painters needed to somehow indicate that this was not an ordinary person being represented but a figure of spiritually elevated status, a holy image.

For this reason, 32 major and 80 minor signs of a Buddha ("lakshanas") are assigned to this image, none of which would be possessed by a normal human being. For presentation purposes, the list is usually winnowed down to a few which are instantly recognizable as signs indicating that this image represents a Buddha.


A Tibetan Carved Blackstone Stele of
Shakyamuni Buddha, 10th century. Source

Generic indications of the Buddha body include:
  • Gold body
  • Elongated ear lobes (from his former life as a prince, bedecked with heavy earrings, not a lakshana, but a universal attribute)
  • A compound body with elephant trunk style arms, antelope-shaped thighs, lion chest, and elongated fingers
  • 3 circles in the neck (3 stages of enlightenment)
  • A protuberance on the skull ("ushnisha") indicating advanced spiritual knowledge
  • A tuft of hair or raised circle on the forehead ("urna")
In addition to these common features, there may be other visual signs associated with a Buddha:
  • Meaningful hand gestures ("mudras")
  • Meaningful leg positions ("asanas")
  • Attributes (hand-held objects or other objects accompanying specific figures)
  • Accompanying personnel (including high-ranking Buddhist figures, guardians, monks, animals, donors, etc.)
  • Mini-narrative scenes from the life or previous lives ("jatakas") of the Buddha
  • Body ambiance:(throne or snake ["naga"] seat; lotus base; halos encircling the head; and mandorla encircling the whole body
  • Frontal position (in a group composition, the Buddha usually faces forward with half-closed eyes, is dressed differently, and is larger and placed higher than other figures than who turn towards him)
All these indicators can aid the appraiser/viewer in identifying an image as a Buddha – though to compound the problem, there are many different Buddhas represented in Buddhist art, with their own particular attributes (the Buddha of Medicine with a medicine bowl, for example). In Mahayana School Buddhism (dominant in northern and east Asian School, but also present in some southeast Asian countries), there is a being called a Bodhisattva, one who is entitled to become a Buddha but remains behind on the journey to help others. Bodhisattvas can assume many of the lakshanas mentioned above, but also wear the heavy jewelry of a prince.

When in doubt, an appraiser might wish to just assign the title "Buddhist image," which is true, if far from informative! This method is particularly advisable in the arena of Himalayan art, with its multiplicity of male and female deities, including several important Hindu gods brought into Buddhist art. Given the current soaring market for Buddhist art generally, caution and consultation are advised.

Note that it is usually stylistically possible to distinguish a genuine Tibetan from a Thai from a Cambodian or Japanese or contemporary Western Buddha image, even when they are all portraying the same spiritual figure. There are regional preferences for a certain appearance, as well as chronological alterations in appearances even within one region.

Value Estimate Considerations


Because of the current art market popularity of Buddhist art with collectors from Hong Kong to New York to London, there have been many major auctions devoted to this subject. Some of the values achieved are stunning and unexpected, way beyond what an appraiser, having conducted a professional appraisal with well-chosen comparables, might assign as a value estimate. Listed in no particular order, here are some value estimate considerations for Buddhist art following the initial description:
  1. Authenticity. Reproductions are rampant, in theory because of respect for renowned older models, or, buyer's preference for a traditional style without any concern for age, or in an attempt to deceive (think "Remington bronzes"). Choice artist signatures, temple seals, Chinese reign names or workshop logos may be added onto a painting, sculpture or textile reproduction. Accompanying boxes may not reflect the original date of the work of art, etc. Really, live in doubt and hope for the best, and research and consult where necessary.
  2. Rarity. Subject, period, technique, inscription, etc. Here, expert advice might be needed. Note that artist names are very unusual on earlier work, but workshop names may be documented or ascribed on the reverse of some works. Some Zen paintings from the 14th century on do bear signatures, although authenticity is an issue. Many modern Tibetan thangka paintings may bear an artist's name (contra to tradition because that places ego over egolessness, the ideal) due to some current Western collectors' demand to know an artist name, and certain of these artists have considerable value.
  3. Materials. Precious, common, legal; unobtainable today; bronze or brass; silk or wool; all from original period, or later additions; permanent or built in obsolescence; etc.
  4. Dimensions. With many museums today, in accepting a work of art as a non-cash charitable contribution, the curators and boards want ready-to-go "display-quality" art, not too small to make an immediate impact. This often means that a larger work might be more desirable than it might be otherwise, except of course if a smaller work is truly "choice"; and see 5.
  5. Condition. Loss of wood or metals; corrosion, or permanent fading; torn textiles; water or fire, insect (active or dead) or incense damage; loss of original mounting, base, setting; need for conservation, cost of repair, and possibility of repair, etc. - the usual value deterrents. Museums may be reluctant to accept even important works if they are in poor and beyond repair condition and in need of conservation in order to be displayed; there may be no funding or expertise available to perform this task.
  6. Provenance. The more respected the former owner/dealer/auction, the more confident an appraiser might feel; that may be an error, however. Modern scholarship may have changed interpretations from previous ones, and today's opinions about a work may not reflect the opinions or taste of a previous era (not to mention, opinions of the current owner!). Any "outside" (not self-published) publication or museum exhibition of the work, with documentation certainly has to be taken into account. There may be legal ramifications to this aspect of provenance. It also is desirable to learn the date of entry into the US or Canada.
  7. Date. This can be tricky, because prime earlier examples are relentlessly copied as reproductions (as in 1.), but also because workshops traditionally used illustrated wood block print depicting the correct way to depict Buddhist figures, in order to create a specific, identifiable image.
  8. Country of origin. Obviously having an accurate geographic identification is important, which brings up an important matter, the work's having a clear provenance (6.) and not subject to an MOU, or Memorandum of Understanding (which can involve repatriation), between country of origin and current country location. Some countries forbid the export of Buddhist figures – or may want them back when they have come west and become public knowledge.
  9. Subject desirability. This includes clarity of design, appealing coloration, interesting or appalling elements, richness of the iconography. Apart from the generalist Buddha collector, there is an active sub-group of collectors who specialize in works with erotic imagery though nudity per se is seldom portrayed outside of the greater India area.
  10. Association with a revered figure or temple. The handprint of a famous teacher or abbot on the reverse of a thangka, for example: Reliable provenance and expert advice may be needed. This can be a major value consideration. If you cannot remove a painting from its current setting, to review the reverse or view the base of a sculpture, this should be stated as a limiting condition.
  11. Quality overall. Museum quality, decorative, other descriptors, with reasoning. These are subjective descriptors, and recommended to be used carefully and only under a specific request for such analysis by client: Well or poorly cast; heavy brass misidentified previously as bronze; inferior, damaged, and faded painting; wood sculptures and textiles in ruinous condition; reproductions of famous works; marks that are just not correct, and why, these are objective descriptors and are rightfully noted.
Of course, so many of these considerations which can affect the value of a Buddhist work of art are familiar ones from other art traditions, but a few are specific to Buddhist art.

Conclusion


Appraising Buddhist art can be difficult. Buddhism alone, with its ancient history, philosophic and religious foundations, and regional and chronological variations, is such a complex subject, with a huge bibliography, some truly awful movies and certainly numerous "Hum"-along lengthy DVD performances. For the use of appraisers of Buddhist art, I have added a few recommended references to Buddhist visual arts and marketplace sites below. There are many more sites, both scholarly and commercial.

Helpful references

  • Tibet House US - Associated with the Dalai Lama; many exhibitions of modern Tibetan and Mongolian art
  • Onmark Productions - Go to the side-bar on Buddhist art. So much information! Japanese-oriented but useful overall
  • Asian Art Museum of San Francisco - Essays and videos; excellent resource, much developed in connection with Khan Academy
  • Asia Society Museum, New York - Top quality examples by region
  • Buddha Museum - Sale source with values
  • BuddhaNet - Very useful for iconography, history, philosophy, etc.
  • Leidy, Denise, The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning (Shambala 2008, paperback) - General introduction by region and period
  • Rubin Museum of Art - Himalayan art; excellent exhibition materials, site can be difficult to navigate
  • The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide - Guide to major concepts, etc
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - Many thematic essays on Buddhist art by countries, periods, general discussion
  • The Buddha Gallery - Commercial site
  • Baronet 4 Tibet - Commercial gallery by devotees to and purveyors of Tibetan art, primarily thangka
  • Thangka Paintings
- Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, PhD, ISA CAPP 

Don't miss ISA's upcoming webinar, "Goddess of Mercy: Buddhism and its Symbolism in Asian Art" on April 24.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see articles like this Dr. Rosenzweig,
    happy to give you feedback and more suggested sources of comps if you're open to it.

    Sanjay@KapoorGalleries.com

    ReplyDelete