Appraisers frequently encounter Buddhist artworks in every form, from goldfish tank ornaments and modern cast concrete potbellied garden statues to museum-quality textiles, paintings, and sculptures. The current Buddhist art market is very active, rising rapidly for extraordinary works, and with a constant presence for lesser works on eBay. Identifying when a work is Buddhist, judging its quality, and assigning a value estimate can be difficult. This brief article is designed to help appraisers understand these challenges.
Describing a Buddha
Buddhism is an extremely complex religion, born over 2,500 years ago in what is now southern Nepal, nourished in north India, then split into various schools and developing into today’s active international Buddhist community.
Just as in the early centuries of Christian art, initially, the Historical Buddha (Sakyamuni, born as Prince Siddhartha) was not depicted figural, but rather with scenes or attributes associated with the primary image (“aniconic” art). As centuries following the venerated figure’s lifetime and people’s spiritual and philosophic needs from religious art altered, the Buddha himself began to be portrayed (“iconic art”). The anonymous sculptors and painters needed to somehow indicate that this was not an ordinary person being represented but a figure of spiritually elevated status, a holy image.
For this reason, 32 major and 80 minor signs of a Buddha (“lakshanas”) are assigned to this image, none of which would be possessed by a normal human being. For presentation purposes, the list is usually winnowed down to a few which are instantly recognizable as signs indicating that this image represents a Buddha.
A Tibetan Carved Blackstone Stele of
Shakyamuni Buddha, 10th century. Source
Appraising Buddhist art can be difficult. Buddhism alone, with its ancient history, philosophic and religious foundations, and regional and chronological variations, is such a complex subject, with a huge bibliography, some truly awful movies and certainly numerous “Hum”-along lengthy DVD performances. For the use of appraisers of Buddhist art, I have added a few recommended references to Buddhist visual arts and marketplace sites below. There are many more sites, both scholarly and commercial.
– Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, Ph.D., ISA CAPP