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Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, including Property from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York


Session 1, 2 PM, March 19, 2007

Session 2, 10 AM, March 20, 2007

Session 3, 2 PM, March 20, 2007

Sale 8299

"Flying Apsarus Playing the Drum"

Lot 506, wall fragment, Flying Apsaras Playing the Drum, limestone, Northern Wei Dynasty, 6th Century, Longmen Caves, 21 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

The Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction at Sotheby's March 19 and 20, 2007 is highlighted by numerous very fine works from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York that are being sold to benefit its restricted endowment for the purchase of works of art. A law suit that attempted to block the deaccessioning by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery was dismissed by a state court a couple of days prior to the auction.

One of the best works, Lot 506, is a rare charcoal-grey limestone wall fragment of "A Flying Apsaras Playing the Drum, from the Longmen Caves that is dated to the Northern Wei Dynasty in the 6th century. The work was once in the collection of Mrs. Leonard Elmhirst and was given to the Albright-Knox in 1940 by Charles W. Goodyear and Georgia M. G. Forman.

An Asparus, or angelic being, is shown with a serene, child-like face and holds a small drum with hand, the catalogue notes, "gracefully raised as if about to pat the drum with its slender tapering fingers."

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"It is rare to find Northern Wei figures of apsarases carved in this exceptionally fine and detailed manner and the present figure, carved in the style characteristic of the many figures found in Longmen, must have added delight and gaiety to its surrounding Buddhist images. The carver has rendered his subject matter to appear light and graceful as if this celestial being is floating, while at the same time displaying an air of elegance and kindness, which are typical of these heavenly maidens or spirits of the cloud and waters in Buddhist mythology. Figures of apsarases descending to scatter flowers or to play heavenly music upon various instruments, were used to enliven and animate votive altars, triad groups and cave niches, since the main registers of the Buddha with attendant bodhisattvas and arhats were strictly controlled in their depiction and iconography by source texts and sutras. In contrast, the depiction of the peripheral elements in stone sculpture and cave painting was seized upon by these anonymous artists to show their prowess and experiment with the boundaries of pictorial convention. Just as in the famous sites from Gongxian, Xiangtangshan, Yungang and Tianlongshan, scattered through north and central China, surviving fragments of peripheral elements like apsarases and attendants are extremely rare, perhaps even more so than those of their accompanying primary Buddha figures. Based on their architecture, style and iconography, the completion of the main caves of the Northern Wei period can be divided into three phases: the first phase between 460 and 465 AD; the second phase between 465 and 494 AD; and the final phase between 494 and 524 AD. The present figure stylistically accords with the third and final phase of the construction of the grottoes of Longmen that began after the transfer of the Nothern Wei capital to Luoyang in Henan province in 494 AD. The Buddhist cave temples at Longmen represent the zenith of monumental stone carving works achieved by the Chinese sculptors from the Northern Wei to the Song dynasty, with the most important caves constructed in the first half of the 6th century and during the reign of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty (r. 684-704 AD)."

It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $1,059,200 including the buyer's premium. The sale total was $35,298,700.

Late Shang Dynasty wine vessel
Lot 507, wine vessel and cover, Archaic, Late Shang Dynasty, 13th to 11th Century B.C., 12 1/8 by 8 by 7 3/8 inches

Another Albright-Knox work is Lot 507, an extremely rare and important Archaic bronze wine vessel and cover, Late Shang Dynasty, 13th-11th Century B.C. It measures 12 1/8 by 8 by 7 3/8 inches. It was purchased by the museum in 1953 from Mathias Komor in New York.through the Arthur B. Michael Fund for $10,000 and now has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $8,104,000 to Roger Keverne, an English dealer, on behalf of Compton Verney, a museum outside Stratford-upon-Avon. The price was a new record for Chinese art at Sotheby's.

The catalogue's describes the lot as follows:

"The robustly cast body of square section with a bombé S-profile curving up to a flared rim set with a pair of pyramidal-shaped finials, all four sides crisply cast in low-relief, one main side cast with a loop handle issuing out from the mouth of a bovine mask linking to another animal mask cast in low-relief with bulbous eyes and curled horns, below a pair of addorsed dragons and four sun whorls, all set against a squared leiwen ground, the three other sides adorned with sculpturally and strikingly rendered central owl heads with saucer-like beady eyes staring out from below bushy brows and perked ears, all centered by a sharp beak and flanked by a pair of confronting dragons, the feathered body, wings and talons finely articulated and set against a leiwen ground, the main side cast with a further pair of confronting snakes flanking the owl, all supported on four powerful splayed blade-like legs each cast with a pair of deconstructed dragons and leiwen, the flat rectangular cover surmounted by a pair of addorsed openwork birds encircled by four pairs of confronting birds around the edge cast in low-relief each within a rectangular panel against a leiwen ground, the surface covered with a smooth green malachite patina with traces of cinnabar, the base of the interior cast with a single pictogram."

These wine vessels are known as fangjia and the catalogue remarks that "No other fangjia with this magnificent owl design appears to have been recorded," adding that "Vessels of this form were made for use in ancestral worship or sacrificial ceremonies and demonstrate the high level of achievement of bronze casting during the Shang dynasty. This type of wine-warming vessel was intended to hold black millet wine that was poured directly into the ground. The vessel is a square variant of the more commonly found rounded jia of the period. Jia vessels disappeared soon after the fall of the Shang dynasty presumably because the ritual for which they were used was no longer appropriate or the shape was viewed with disfavour among the Zhou rulers. The square form and the magnificent size of this piece give it a sense of balance and strength reinforcing the importance of the vessel. The majority of fang-shaped vessels have been found in tombs belonging to royalty or high-ranking officials. They are generally monumental and clearly rectangular in section and are decorated in a highly ornate fashion."

Pottery figure of male palace attendant, Northern Wei Dynasty

Lot 520, figure of a male palace attendant, pottery, Northern Wei Dynasty, 24 3/4 inches high

Another Albright-Knox piece, Lot 520, is a very beautiful and rare large pottery figure of a male palace attendent from the Northern Wei Dynastry. There are traces of pigment over the white slip. The figure is 24 3/4 inches high. It has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $42,000.

The auction has many fine works that are not from the Albright-Knox Art gallery.

Han dynasty pottery figure of a shaman

Lot 582, figure of a shaman, Han dynasty, Sichuan, red painted grey pottery, 52 1/2 inches high

Lot 582 is a marvelous large red painted grey pottery figure of a shaman from the Han Dynasty. The figure grasps a writhing serpent in the left hand and an axe inthe right and wears a triple-horned headdress with a concave disc. It is 52 1/2 inches high. It has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $36,000.

Han Dynasty pottery figure of a dog

Lot 591, figure of a dog, Han Dynasty, green-glazed red pottery, 16 7/8 inches high

The Han Dynasty shaman could have no finer friend that Lot 591, a green-glazed red pottery figure of a dog from the same dynasty. It is 16 7/8 inches high and is both wonderfully animated and stylized. The catalogue notes that "it is rare to find Han glazed pottery figures of dogs of this large size and the present dog is also exceptional for its animated expression as greeting its owner." It has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $36,000.

Tang gilt bronze figure of a lokapala

Lot 731, figure of a Lokapala, gilt bronze, Tang Dynasty, 4 5/8 inches high

Lot 731 is a superb and menacing gilt bronze figure of a Lokapala that dates to the Tang Dynasty and is only 4 5/8 inches high. "The present figure is a fine example of the rounded volumes and convincing suggestion of body weight and movement characteristic of Tang dynasty sculptural style," according to the catalogue, which also said "Well cast with the dramatic swayed-hip posture and exaggerated physical features meant to frighten sickness and evil spirits away, the present lokapala would originally have formed part of a portable votive altar set." The lot has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $36,000.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Lot 741, figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, gilt bronze, Ming Dynasty, 15th/16th Century, 37 inches high

Lot 741 is a 37-inch-high gilt bronze figure of Skakyamuni Buddha from the Ming Dynasty. This work sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong October 29, 2000 for a world record price then of $1,100,000. It is one of the larges extant gilt-bronze seated Buddha images cast in the Ming Dynasty and the catalogue maintains that "notwithstanding the lack of a reign mark, represents a major commission and technical accomplishment that could only have been instigated and sponsored by Imperial patronage, most likely for a significant temple in the Tibetan monastic tradition within China."

"By contrast, within Tibet," it continued, "monumental Buddha images were created not in bronze but in alloys of high copper content, and not through a single 'pour' as with this figure, but through assembling component parts, which were frequently constructed through repoussé techniques. Larger domestic Chinese bronze figures are known, but mainly without gilding, and in the non-imperial or domestic style such as the famous crowned Buddha in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and several others sited in the open air in the Okura Shokukan, Tokyo, and a pair of the Shakyamuni Buddha and the Amitabha Buddha in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, Mount Desert Island, Maine, which now display characteristic greenish bronze patina instead....This iconographic form in which the historical Buddha is seated with his right hand in the earth-touching position, bhumisparsa mudra, recalls a momentous episode from his spiritual biography in which he triumphs over Mara just prior to his enlightenment. Having vowed to remain in meditation until he penetrated the mystery of existence, Shakyamuni was visited by Mara, a demon associated with the veils and distractions of mundane existence. The Buddha remained unmoved by all the pleasant and unpleasant distractions with which Mara sought to deflect him from his goal. According to some traditional accounts, Mara's final assault consisted of an attempt to undermine the bodhisattva's sense of worthiness by questioning Shakyamuni's entitlement to seek the lofty goal of spiritual enlightenment and the consequent freedom from rebirth. Aided by spirits who reminded him of the countless compassionate efforts he had made on behalf of sentient beings throughout his numerous animal and human incarnations, Shakyamuni recognised that it was his destiny to be poised on the threshold of enlightenment. In response to Mara's query therefore, Shakyamuni moved his right hand from the meditation position in his lap and touched the ground, stating, 'the earth is my witness.' This act of unwavering resolve caused Mara and his army of demons and temptresses to disperse, leaving Shakyamuni to experience his Great Enlightenment. The episode took place at the Adamantine Throne, vajrasana, beneath a bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, in eastern India, a location said to have been especially empowered to expedite the Buddha's enlightenment. It is this precise instance of triumph that the present gilt-bronze image embodies.When smaller Buddha images with this mudra appear in groups of five, as Tathagata Buddhas representing various spiritual aspects or principles rather than personages, it would then represent Aksobhya, who resides in the Eastern Paradise, in the direction of the rising sun, embodying the subjugation of passions and inner awakening. An image of the present size is, however, unlikely to have belonged to a set of five; it may rather be related to contemporary Tibetan thangkas showing a similarly large central image of Shakyamuni in 'earth-witnessing' gesture. As such, the present figure possesses the same triumphant aura and stylized formal composition as a thangka from Western Tibet, formerly in the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, included in the exhibition, Wisdom & Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1991, 4. The treatment of the robes in both the thangka and the present figure, with hooded right shoulder and flat folds under a tightly bound waist, differs significantly from the two other extant large Buddhas of closely related size. Both are of Yongle mark and period, with their original stepped bases and pierced mandorlas. One is in the British Museum, illustrated in Zwalf, Buddhism: Art and Faith, London, 1985, 305 and color frontispiece; and the other figure was sold Hotel Drouot, Paris, 26th June 1994, lot 284, and again more recently sold from the Speelman Collection, in our Hong Kong rooms, 7th October, 2006, lot 808 which trumped the world record previously held by the present image to a new level of HK$116.6 million (US$15.1 million). Nonetheless, neither of those two figures closely match the present figure in proportion and monumentality."

It has an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It failed to sell.

"Seven-headed Marici" Ming

Lot 745, seven-headed Marici, gilt bronze, Ming Dynasty, 15th/16th Century, 16 inches high

Lot 745 is a gilt-bronze figure of a seven-headed Marici from the Ming Dynasty. It is 16 inches high and has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It failed to sell.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"Marici or Vajravarahi is known as the Goddess of the Dawn or Queen of the Heavens. She represents compassion and the vanquishing of evil. As Vajravarahi, she is believed to be the incarnate of every successive abbess of the monestary of Semding. Legend has it that one of these abbess had a growth behind her ear which resembled a sow's head. When the Mongol warrior, Dzungar came to attack the monastery, he called out for her the abbess to come out to show her sow's head. When he and his army destroyed the walls of the monastery, all they found were a group of sows and pigs inside led by a sow larger than the rest of the group. Dzungar was so amazed that he stopped the pillage, at which the sows and pigs transformed into monks and nuns; the largest sow transformed into the abbess. Dzungar was so amazed at the miracle that he converted and enriched the monastery. It is extremely rare to find Marici with the fourth head of Buddha. Most often she has a "yellow" incarnation with three heads and eight or sixteen arms. In her 'red' form she has three heads and ten arms. In her "white" form she has ten arms and four legs treading on Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva."

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