Left Baroness Eva Bessenyey competing on one of her Hungarian Warmbloods, a breed of horse saved from extinction by her stepmother, Countess Margit Sigray Bessenyey, who co-founded the Hungarian Horse

‘She noticed things other people didn’t see’

Baroness Eva Bessenyey devoted her life to exploring the world and, in the process, developed a passion for bronze and stone sculpture, textiles and paintings from across Asia. On 20 March, many of these works will be offered in New York

Baroness Eva Bessenyey (1922-2018) was a woman who expressed her independent spirit through a love of languages, horses and, above all, travel. Born into an artistic, aristocratic family in Hungary, she moved to the United States when German forces invaded Hungary, and her father, Baron Gyorgy Bessenyey, managed to secure a safe passage for his family. He would later become the Hungarian Secretary of State in exile.

In the early 1950s, Eva Bessenyey packed her bags and, against her father’s advice, went to work in Bolivia. After spending 18 months in Sucre, in the country’s southern highlands, she disappeared alone down the Amazon, travelling by mule and canoe. It took the Baron’s considerable diplomatic ingenuity to find her.

Prone to extended bouts of wanderlust, the young Eva combined travel with work at the publishing firm Harcourt Brace. Whenever she told her bosses that she simply had to travel, their reply was that there could be no guarantees that her desk would be there when she got back. Invariably, it was.

Her thirst for adventure took her to Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Nepal and Turkey, in addition to most of Europe. Her love of the Middle East prompted her to teach herself Arabic, and she also spoke Hungarian, French, English, German and Spanish.

‘My aunt broke the mould and it took great courage. She would not let anyone define her’ — Ilona Bessenyey

‘She was the kind of person who, if you said “no” to her, would take it as an invitation to go ahead and do it,’ her niece, Ilona Bessenyey, recalls. ‘She was the most non-conformist woman I ever knew.’

On 20 March in New York, Christie’s will offer 48 works from the collection of the late Baroness Eva Bessenyey as part of the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art  sale. The works include Southeast Asian bronze and stone sculpture, ritual and decorative objects from India, Nepal and Tibet, as well as a selection of Indian and Nepalese paintings.

A gilt-bronze figure of Padmapani Lokeshvara, Tibet, 17th-18th century. 7⅛ in (18.1 cm) high. Estimate $60,000-80,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

A gilt-bronze figure of Padmapani Lokeshvara, Tibet, 17th-18th century. 7⅛ in (18.1 cm) high. Estimate $60,000-80,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

Eva Bessenyey’s beautiful Manhattan home became a showcase for the collection of outstanding artefacts she acquired on her peregrinations, and also from auction houses and trusted dealers. Along the way, she developed an eye for Buddhist and Hindu devotional art and rugs, also becoming an expert in the woven arts.

The 18th-century Tibeto-Chinese bronze figure of Sarasvati. 5 in (12.7 cm) high. Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

The 18th-century Tibeto-Chinese bronze figure of Sarasvati. 5 in (12.7 cm) high. Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

The bronze figure of Sarasvati with the lute Baroness Eva Bessenyey drew, cut out and placed in her lap

The bronze figure of Sarasvati with the lute Baroness Eva Bessenyey drew, cut out and placed in her lap

‘She noticed things other people didn’t see,’ says Ilona Bessenyey. ‘I’m just stunned by the quality of the objects she collected.’

The Baroness’s niece recalls two objects with particular fondness. The first, a sandstone stele of Ganesha (below) that dominated the living room, was originally owned by Mr and Mrs Paul Manheim, two of the pioneering collectors of Asian art in America. ‘The Ganesha’s elaborate crown, curled trunk and portly belly make it incredibly endearing,’ says Jacqueline Dennis Subhash, Head of the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department at Christie’s.

The other was an 18th-century bronze figure of Sarasvati (above) with a missing musical instrument. ‘My aunt drew a perfect lute, cut it out, and placed it in her lap,’ Ilona explains.

A sandstone stele of Ganesha, Vietnam, Late Cham Period, 15th century. 13½ in (34 cm) high. Estimate $10,000-15,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

A sandstone stele of Ganesha, Vietnam, Late Cham Period, 15th century. 13½ in (34 cm) high. Estimate $10,000-15,000. Offered on 20 March in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Works of Art sale at Christie’s in New York

‘Eva Bessenyey collected quirky, beautiful and significant works of Himalayan art,’ says Dennis Subhash, who cites a rare 17th-century gilt-bronze figure of Padmapani Lokeshvara (pictured above the Sarasvati bronze) as ‘an exceptionally sophisticated example of later Tibetan sculpture, and a testament to the keen eye of the collector’.

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Over the years the Baroness’s intrepid spirit never diminished. Between competing in endurance rides on her beloved Hungarian Warmblood horses and travelling the globe, she came to be an inspiration to those around her. ‘She was exotic and mysterious. My aunt broke the mould and it took great courage,’ says her niece. ‘She would not let anyone define her — to me, she was the model of an ideal woman.’

A selection of Eva Bessenyey’s rugs will also be offered as part of the Interiors  sale at Christie’s in New York, scheduled for August 2019.