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Collecting Guide: 5 things to know about Himalayan bronzes

Specialist Leiko Coyle offers tips on collecting sculpture from the Himalayas, with examples (below) from our Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art sale on 13 September 2017

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  • Buddhas are just the beginning

There is tremendous iconographic variation in the field of Himalayan sculpture: from wrathful guardian deities to serene portraits of historical teachers and depictions of animal-headed dancing goddesses. These revered images were generally commissioned by wealthy patrons and the monasteries or temples they supported. 

Although a number of Himalayan bronzes depict Buddhist iconography, many represent Hindu deities. Get to know the rich and varied pantheon of gods and goddesses to discover if there is a particular deity that resonates with you. Do you want a wrathful protector or a goddess of abundance? A multi-armed dynamic image or a serene minimal form? A seated or a standing figure? I favour images of serene goddesses, and so find the elegance and restrained power of a rare and very early Nepalese bronze figure of the goddess of abundance, Vasudhara (below), particularly captivating. 

An important gilt bronze figure of Vasudhara. Nepal, 13th century

An important gilt bronze figure of Vasudhara. Nepal, 13th century

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  • Familiarise yourself with patina

Patina is a strong indication of the age and authenticity of bronze. As metal sculptures are exposed to various elements the different chemical compounds of the metal alloy are impacted, resulting in patina, or the accumulated change in the texture and colour of the sculpture’s surface. Metal alloys develop unique patinas depending on their particular composition. Nepalese bronzes, for example, are generally constructed with a copper alloy and finished with a thick layer of lustrous gilding. Over time the gilding can wear away, especially on the proudest surfaces of the work such as the nose or limbs, revealing the reddish copper surface beneath. This effect is visible on the gilt bronze figure below. 

Bronzes might not always be gilded, and will age differently. While the combination of temperature, humidity and exposure to the natural elements has the greatest impact on patina, frequent handling of a sculpture during devotional worship can also alter it. This type of natural wear is revered by connoisseurs, who see it as evidence of the sculpture’s passage through time. 

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  • Turn it over

Studying the underside of a bronze is another way to gain information about its authenticity and age. The information you find is likely to differ according to the work’s history. 

Many Himalayan bronzes of Buddhist origin are consecrated through a specific ritual that invokes the spirit of the represented deity, imbuing the work with the latter’s power. Sacred items such as herbs or cloth are sometimes sealed inside the statue as offerings to the deity. It is not uncommon for a sculpture to have been reconsecrated at various points in time. 

Sometimes a sculpture will no longer be sealed, exposing the interior of the work. While an intact consecration chamber is often preferred, it does not always have a significant impact on the value of a work — and an unsealed sculpture, like the figure of Yamantaka, below, will facilitate a more detailed assessment of the interior, providing additional information on age and authenticity. 

Himalayan bronzes depicting Hindu rather than Buddhist imagery are not typically consecrated in the same way: their bases are not constructed to hold sacred offerings. 

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  • Do your homework on pricing

Thanks to the internet, vetting the price of a work of art in the global market is easier than ever. For a dependable starting point, a free My Christie’s account allows you to search a database of art prices, collated from the most recent auction sales worldwide. Compare pricing with at least three similar works of art sold in recent years. Look at both the selling price and the original estimate. Further information can be found on Himalayan Art Resource, which offers an encyclopaedic database of Himalayan works in museums, collections, or presented at auction.

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  • Look at as many examples as possible

Museums are ideal for training your eye and learning about various stylistic traditions. Auction viewings offer the added advantage of allowing viewers to handle works and ask specialists questions. If you cannot visit a museum or attend an auction viewing, websites such as Christies.com allow you to zoom in on the fine details of sculptures.

Finally, invest in one or two reference books. You can start with a reputable museum publication that provides an overview of a particular field. If you are looking for the gold standard of reference books, I would recommend Ulrich von Schroeder’s complete set: Indo-Tibetan Bronzes. Any publication by Dr. Pratap Pal offers an excellent guide for someone wanting to enter the field or brush-up on areas of interest. Finally, for a more casual guide, I would recommend museum publications, most notably those from the Rubin Museum of Art.