The inscription on the back of the figure may be translated:
'Reverently offered to the Bian Liang Guan Temple by Xiao Fu, Vice Minister of the Imperial Household in the first year of the reign of the Emperor Daguan of the Great Song dynasty', corresponding to AD 1107.
This extraordinary large ivory standing Buddha was included in the ground-breaking 1963 exhibition, The Evolution of the Buddha Image, Asia House, New York, and illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 99, no. 48. The exhibition's organizer, Benjamin Rowland, ibid., p. 140, accepting the date of 1107 included in the incised inscription on the reverse of the image, dated it to the Northern Song period. The ivory Buddha's public appearance in the 1963 exhibition created both excitement and considerable scholarly speculation. Subsequently, it has appeared, and been referred to in various important publications, the most notable being, Soame Jenyn's and William Watson's, Chinese Art: The Minor Arts II, New York, 1965, pp. 180-1, no. 113, where it was suggested the figure may date to the Yuan period.
At the time of Rowland's exhibition, a search through the standard literature on Chinese ivories, including the multi-volume extensive Sassoon Collection, indicated there were no known stylistically comparable ivory figures. Consequently, its addition to the corpus of Chinese ivory figural sculpture was of particular significance. Being so completely outside the known stylistic parameters of Song-Ming ivories, and being of such remarkable aesthetic quality made clear that it was the product of some hitherto unknown early workshop of major importance.
There existed at the time, however, one little-known, related ivory carving in an American Institution collection. Since 1957, there has been in the collection of the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C., a standing ivory Buddha with a date of 1025. See J. Stuart and Chang Qing, "Chinese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light at the Freer Gallery of Art", Orientations, April 2002, p. 37. That dating had rarely been taken seriously because it was clear from the style of the sculpture that it could not predate the 17th century. The date appears on the underside of the sculpture in seal characters that have no relation to the present Buddha. Nevertheless, it is obvious that these two sculptures belong to the same stylistic family: the present figure being at the beginning of a tradition and the Freer example belonging to the end of that tradition.
Over the years, a few other ivory standing figures belonging to this stylistic family have come to market. See, for example, the figures sold at Sotheby's, London, 8 November 1994, lot 362 and at Nagel, Stuutgart, 11 May 2002, lot 1610. As with the Freer example, these Buddhist figures display a different iconography than the present figure, and are probably later copies of figures from some unknown original figural sets from perhaps as early as the Song period.
That there had been early sets of Buddhist figures, each figure iconographically different from the other, to serve as prototypes for the later copies, was confirmed in 1977, when three early ivory Buddhas of very fine quality, clearly all from the same incomplete set, were sold in these rooms, 28-29 October 1977, lot 130. Each of these figures had the same kind of spurious dated inscription - in this case to 1072 - on their reverse, as the present figure dated 1107. Not only were the inscriptions of the same type but the three were stylistically extremely close to the present Buddha.
A careful comparison indicates that while superb sculptures, these three were fractionally less refined than the present sculpture. Lacking their carved lotus pedestals, they were also of a different size (49-51 cm.), indicating they were from a different set than the present figure. Despite bearing dates slightly earlier than 1107, they are likely to have been carved very slightly later. Two of them were later published in Ivory: A History and Collector's Guide, London, 1987, p. 233, where they were dated, "Almost certainly pre-Ming, perhaps late Song or Yuan". They were subsequently included in the exhibition, Chinese Works of Art and Snuff Bottles, The Chinese Porcelain Company, New York, 1-23 June 1994, no. 50, where they were dated late Song/Yuan dynasty (Fig. 1).
The present Buddha dated 1107, and the three dated to 1072, appear to be the only published examples of one or more early ivory-carving workshops whose output must have been so highly regarded that it provided stylistic prototypes for a type of image that was being copied as late as the 19th century.
Scientific analysis has determined that this figure was carved from fossil mammoth ivory; consequently its Carbon-14 test cannot determine the date of carving. A Technical Examination and Radiocarbon Dating Report is available upon request.