An expert guide to collecting Buddhist sculpture

Specialist Hannah Perry advises on how to identify valuable pieces in different styles and materials from across Asia — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

buddhist sculpture

A rare gilt-bronze figure of Green Tara, Mongolia, Zanabazar style, 17th-18th century. 8½ in (21.6 cm). Estimate: $150,000–250,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 20 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Anthropomorphic images of the Buddha, the enlightened being who lived and taught in India sometime between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, originated in North India and present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1st century AD. Over the following centuries, sculptural representation of Buddha and the large pantheon of Buddhist deities became an important artistic tradition in nearly every culture between Afghanistan and Japan.

Today, a wide variety of examples remain from various civilisations, some more valuable than others.

‘Like any other segment of the Asian market, there is a very wide price range, based on quality and rarity,’ says Christie’s New York specialist Tristan Bruck. ‘In recent years, however, as buyers from Asia have become more involved, the prices for the best works have gone up significantly.’

Become familiar with the history

Not surprisingly, given the wide reach of his teachings, the Buddha and other Buddhist deities have been interpreted widely, and in many different styles and materials. Artisans have used stone, stucco, terracotta, wood, lacquer, and metals such as bronze, gold, and silver to recreate them.

According to Bruck, identifying a material can help anchor where a certain image was made, and in what time period. ‘Certain materials were favoured in different countries,’ he says. ‘The ancient region of Gandhara in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, favoured the sculptural flexibility of stucco, while the medieval Nepalese were among the finest bronze casters in the world.’

Today, the most sought-after Buddhist sculptures are usually gilt-bronzes, with certain time periods particularly attractive to the market. For example, Bruck says, early Ming dynasty works from the reign of the Yongle and Xuande Emperors, the gilt-bronzes of 15th-century Tibet, Licchavi and Malla period Nepalese sculpture, and early Qing dynasty works are all currently fetching high prices.

To begin to be able to distinguish between cultures, styles and historical periods, Bruck suggests that a collector view as many examples of Buddhist sculpture as possible. In New York, he recommends visiting the Rubin Museum of Art, which is dedicated to the art and preservation of the cultures of the Himalayas, India, and neighbouring regions.

Other exemplary collections include the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, now housed at Asia Society in New York, the collection established by Norton Simon and housed at the Norton Simon Museum in California, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Great reference books are also a necessity. Two definitive tomes are Ulrich von Schroeder’s Indo-Tibetan Bronzes  and Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, which are carefully organised by type. Bruck notes that these beautifully-bound reference books are available online at Visual Dharma Publications, and even appear at auction from time to time.

Another excellent source is Himalayan Art Resources — a website run by Jeff Watt, a leading scholar of Himalayan art — which catalogues more than 66,000 images and serves as an excellent starting point for research.

Tastes change, but quality holds its value

Bruck explains that the market for Buddhist sculptures can fluctuate, with different periods or styles rising and falling in popularity. An exemplary piece from any time period, however, will hold its value.

What makes for great quality in a Buddhist sculpture is based on a number of things, including the stylistic modelling of the figure, the rarity of the subject, and the skill of the artist. ‘At the end of the day, people are buying Buddhist sculptures because they are beautiful and well made,’ Bruck notes. When considering your price point, he adds, always buy the highest quality work you can afford.

Avoid judging a piece on photographs alone

As a rule, you should never buy a sculpture unless you have seen it in person. ‘A terrible work can look really great in a photograph, and the converse is true as well,’ Bruck notes.

More than getting a better sense of what the sculpture actually looks like, handling the physical work allows you to study all of its components, including its weight, texture and sometimes even smell.

‘Some experts claims newly-made bronzes have a certain acidic odour, although the legitimacy of this claim I can neither confirm nor deny,’ says Bruck. As you start building up your visual memory, you will be able to spot little things that are evidence of something not being quite right with a work.

The back and underneath of a piece can be most revealing

When forgers make replicas or copies of a sculpture, they generally do so using the aid of published references. In such references, you only see the front of a sculpture — the back and the bottom are not generally published. The forgers recreate these parts from their imaginations, which makes for strange — and frequently bizarre — design components.

For example, Bruck says, the drapery of a Buddha’s robe might fold strangely — or the jewellery of a bodhisattva  won’t sit properly. Sometimes, the back of a sculpture looks more cursorily completed than the front, betraying the forger’s lack of concern with making the back look as well finished as the front. For an artisan producing an original, every aspect of the work is equally important.

Bruck recommends that collectors should pay careful attention to the hands, feet, jewellery and drapery. ‘Those are the hardest things to model for anyone.’ If any of these seem poorly rendered, it’s a sign that, at the very least, the work is not of very high quality.

Look for inscriptions

The artists who created Buddhist sculptures are anonymous. On certain occasions, however, sculptures are marked with inscriptions that indicate they were made during the reign of a certain emperor or in the lifetime of a Tibetan lama  (teacher). These works, Bruck says, are particularly valuable.

Inscriptions usually provide additional insight into the lives of those who worshipped them. One particularly interesting group to look out for are works marked with inscriptions that state they belong to the collection of Naga Raja, a 10th-11th century Western Tibetan noble-born monk. He amassed an impressive number of Buddhist sculptures dated from the 8th to the 11th centuries, many of which are in museums today.

‘Bronzes with the Naja Raja inscription are some of my favourites,’ says Bruck. ‘They represent perhaps the earliest recorded collecting history in this field.’

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate Buddhist sculpture

Although many collectors are drawn to the religious components of the objects, others appreciate the rich history of more than 2,000 years of Buddhist art. Over that period, Bruck notes, artisans and theologians have delved deeper and deeper into the nature of Buddhism, coming up with new ways to think about the principles of Buddha’s teachings.

The resultant esoteric forms, reflected in the diversity of Buddhist deities, and particularly represented in Tibetan-style Buddhism, offer countless avenues for study and appreciation.

An interest in Buddhist sculpture is an interest in ideology, iconography, and the consistency of certain themes throughout millennia — universal themes that can find an audience with anyone.

Condition is key

As with any other area of collecting art, condition is an important aspect in the value of a work. Given the age of many Buddhist sculptures, however, one must be realistic, and chances are that many examples will have undergone some form of restoration.

Unfortunately, some restorations are better than others, and Bruck advises collectors to always consult a specialist to learn how significantly restorative work might change the value of a work.

A large gilt-bronze figure of Amitabha, Tibet, 15th-16th century. 17 in (43.2 cm) high. Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 20 March at Christie’s in New York

Different materials obviously have varying levels of durability. Bronze and stone are the most hardy, while stucco, terracotta and lacquer can be difficult to preserve. Bruck advises that those looking to make long-term investments be cautious of any materials that are going to change dramatically due to environmental or natural decay.

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Follow the provenance

‘A work with old, well-documented provenance will always be worth considerably more than a similar work with no history,’ says Bruck. A rich provenance will sometimes help to ensure authenticity.

‘If a work is from a prestigious collection or has been published by a well-known scholar,’ he adds, ‘then in many cases, it has already gone through a vetting process.’

Like many ancient works, Buddhist sculptures are bound by international laws that sometimes prohibit their sale outside their country of origin. Bruck explains that Chinese works dating from the Tang dynasty or earlier (pre-906 AD), for example, must have been outside China prior to 2009, as per the bilateral agreement between the US and China. Cambodia has a similar agreement dated to 1999.

Museums in the United States generally stick to a 1970 UNESCO agreement, which protects archaeological sites, when it comes to acquisitions. In general, a collector should be familiar with such laws and protocols to ensure that the works in his or her collection maintain their integrity and value.

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