5 minutes with... A Nepalese bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava
Jacqueline Dennis Subhash, Head of Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department, explains how and why this sculpture was made, and recalls her visits to the bronze workshops of the Kathmandu Valley
Jacqueline Dennis Subhash with a rare gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava, Nepal, 17th-18th century. Height: 46 cm (18⅛ in). Offered in Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art on 11 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
Almost half a metre in height, this large, gilt-bronze figure of a buddha was made some time between the 17th and 18th centuries by the renowned Newar artisans of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.
‘The Newar have been making Buddhist statues since at least the sixth century, transmitting deep iconographical knowledge gleaned from sacred texts through the generations,’ explains Jacqueline Dennis Subhash, the head of Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department.
Twenty years ago, when Subhash was a Tibetan Studies undergraduate at university in Kathmandu, she regularly visited their workshops. ‘There are foundries everywhere throughout the valley, still alive and well,’ she says. ‘Even today you could walk into one and commission a gilt-bronze statue of your choice.’
A rare gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava, Nepal, 17th-18th century. Height: 46 cm (18⅛ in). Sold for $447,000 on 11 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
The Newar create their sculptures using the lost-wax technique. It involves coating a wax model in clay mixed with dung and rice husks, then firing it to melt the wax and leave a hollow cast into which molten bronze can be poured.
In the Kathmandu Valley, craftspeople use a particularly high volume of copper in their bronze alloy, 85-95 per cent, which gives the metal a deep russet tone — visible here on the sculpture’s reverse.
Like many Nepalese bronze sculptures, this figure has been fire-gilded — a process that involves washing the statue with gold and mercury. When fired, the mercury evaporates to leave a gilded film bonded to the surface.
‘Mercury vapours are very toxic,’ warns Subhash. ‘Mercury poisoning is still common in Nepal, but to help combat it, artisans practice an ancient technique of standing upwind with a mouthful of raw meat, which is believed to absorb the vapours.’
It’s the mudra or hand gesture that makes this figure identifiable as Ratnasambhava
So how much would such a commission cost? ‘A figure of this size and quality would have come at great expense,’ says the specialist. ‘The placement of this buddha’s hands indicates that the figure represents Ratnasambhava, one of the five Tathagata or meditation buddhas. Typically Tathagata buddhas would have been commissioned as a set, so it’s likely that this sculpture was created in a set of five,’ she adds.
The set may have been a gift to a local monastery or temple from a wealthy donor seeking to gain spiritual merit. ‘It would have been a treasure from the moment it was made,’ explains Subhash.
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Subhash can’t think of more than ten bronze buddhas of this calibre that have gone under the hammer during the past decade. ‘And of those ten, only a third were Nepalese,’ she adds. ‘When you also consider the fact that this statue has been in the same private German collection since 1973, its sale becomes an exceptional moment.’