My reaction to seeing the thangka in person was pure astonishment. It is impressive in so many ways — its phenomenal state of preservation after 600 years; the extraordinary quality of the skill and artistry that went into creating it; its monumental size; and the complexity of its iconography. Of course, there is also its rarity. Only two others have been preserved in the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.
The thangka would have been specially made in one of the imperial silk embroidery workshops, and it is significant that it bears a six-character Yongle mark, and that the final character is not the usual one, which can be translated as ‘made’, but another which may be translated as ‘bestowed’ or ‘presented’. Receiving such a valuable and rare gift would have been a mark of exceptional imperial favour.
As for its astounding condition, there may be several reasons for its well-preserved state. Light is particularly damaging to textiles. When hung, the thangka would generally have been covered, and only uncovered at specific times. It has also probably spent a good deal of its life rolled up away from light.
When it came to auction, the bidding competition lasted 22 minutes (bear in mind the hammer usually falls after one minute) and the thangka was finally knocked down at HK$348.4m (US$45m), a world auction record for any Chinese Work of Art.