By Michele Leight
Two beautiful thangkas from Tibet and ancient sculptures from Gandhara, Nepal and Tibet are highlights of Christie's New York Asia Week Indian and Southeast Asian Art auction this Fall.
The two ancient thangkas illustrated above and below are from the Collection of Dr. Eugenio Ghersi, a surgeon, naval hero and one of the last great explorers of Tibet.
Photographs in Christie's catalogue for this sale show Dr. Ghersi during two expeditions with Giuseppi Tucci between 1933 and 1935 in the Himalayas, when the region was rarely traversed by foreigners, including a nostalgic photo in the Chandra Valley in 1933 with Tucci's team that includes sherpas and a rudimentary tent with suitcases stacked neatly outside it. In the background are the majestic Himalayas, "the abode of the Gods".
Ghersi meticulously photographed and documented numerous monuments and artworks in the Himalayas that were threatened by disrepair, or being replaced by new commissions. Subsequently, his records and research served as the basis for several publications by Tucci. Illustrated above is Lot 558, "A Rare and Important Thangka of the Green Tara," created in Tibet in the 13th to 14th century.
Lot 558 has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $1,762,500, a world auction record for a thangka.
Illustrated below is Lot 559, "An Early and Highly Important Thangka of Amitabha," created in Western Tibet in the second half of the 13th century. Amazingly, Christie's catalogue for this sale notes that the two thangkas have remained in the same condition since they were acquired by Dr. Ghersi in 1933. They are painted in mineral pigments on textile, a fragile medium to say the least, especially considering the terrain and climate from which they emerged - unscathed.
Lot 559 has an estimate of $$400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $1,046,500.
Intrepid travelers and explorers in Dr. Gheris's day did not have any of the perks that contemporary tents, clothing and sterilization equipment provide in chilling, and potentially deadly, mountainous terrain. Christie's catalogue for this sale provides fascinating background about their expeditions. After Dr. Ghersi graduated from the medical university in Turin, he became the Medical Captain on board the Carlotto (1930-1931), with responsibility for supporting religious Italian missionaries along the Yangzi Jiang river and the Italian consulate in Hankou, China:
"Soon after he was introduced to Giuseppi Tucci through a common friend, who knew Tucci needed a good mountain climber and photographer for his next expeditions through Western Tibet. Tucci also got a doctor, cartographer, dedicated diarist and beer brewer in the bargain. Ghersi and Tucci made two expeditions together, the first in June-October 1933 (comprising Manali, Rohtang Pass, Tiak, Tabgyeling, Shangtse, Gartok, Tholing, Tsaparang, Shipki Pass, Chini, Sarahan, and Simla), the second in June-October 1935 (Almora, Taklakot, Khorjanath, Manasarowar lake, Kailash, Kyunglung, Mangnang, Tholing, Tsaparang, Phyang, Dunkar, Gartok, Tashingang, Leh and Shrinagar). Many months prior to each expedition Tucci had to conduct difficult negotiations with the authorities to obtain travel permits and permission to collect and export to Italy the accumulated research materials, including manuscripts and paintings. In 1934 Ghersi received military honors from the Regia Marina d'Italia for his services along the first expedition."
Tucci had realized the need for good photographs on previous expeditions as a means of documenting endangered monuments and artworks, and his own limitations in this area of expertise:
"In contrast Ghersi was more than competent; paperwork of customs exceptions from the expeditions list Leica 35mm film and 6 x 9 sheet film for a medium format camera. At each site they visited, Ghersi would make exposures under incredibly difficult conditions, even by today's standards, then develop film that very evening at camp, so that exposures could be repeated if necessary (and possible). He then meticulously catalogued the negatives, annotating them with place, date and subject, and cross-referenced them in the daily travel diary he kept, along with any motion pictures or cartographic, sketches he made. All of Ghersi's notes as well as all of the research materials Tucci collected during the expeditions were kept by Tucci and used for his many publications. Ghersi spent all of 1934 with Tucci preparing the co-authored Missione Scientifica. Tucci then used the proceeds to finance his subsequent expeditions..." (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
The beautiful Green Tara in the Ghersi thangka is the earliest example of Green Tara in association with Twenty-one Taras and the Eight Fears, which are described as fire, water, lions, elephants, snakes, chains or false imprisonment, demons or ghosts, and thieves:
"Once she achieved complete enlightenment, Tara promised to return in a female form to benefit all beings. Meditational practices and visual descriptions of Tara appear in all schools of Buddhist tantra. She is usually depicted as a beautiful young woman, commonly either green (for all types of meditation), white for longevity, and red for power. There are close to two hundred different meditational forms of Tara, varying in color, number of faces and limbs, and in peaceful or wrathful countenances. In this painting, Green Tara is flanked by Marichi to her right, the peaceful deity with clean skin and bright white clothing, and to her left by Ekajati, the ash-covered wrathful deity with third eye wrapped in tiger skin." (Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Dr. Ghersi never returned to Tibet after the second expedition in 1935. He met and married the love of his life Michelina in 1936, and over the next nine years continued to serve in the Italian navy, traveling on missons to South America, Yugoslavia and Sicily. Throughout, he kept diaries and documented his travels in photographs. In 1996 his beloved Michelina passed away, which deeply affected him. The same year an exhibition of his photographs from the Tibetan expeditions were requested by the abbot of Tabo monastary for thier millennium celebration. He planned for an exhibition and catalogue of his diary notes and photographs from the Tucci expeditions until his death in October, 1997.
The mottled, deeply encrusted and patinaed surface of Lot 522, "An Important Parcel Gilt and Polychromed Gray Schist Figure of the Teaching Buddha," (illustrated above), reveals its age. The figure depicts the teaching Buddha performing the second (of eight) miracle(s), and was finely carved in Gandhara in the 2nd to 3rd century. Surprisingly, it has retained much of its red pigment and original gilding. It is richly populated with animal life, including a lion, elephants and bulls. The second miracle shown here "is reduced to its essential elements in an unusual abstraction" (Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Lot 522 has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $1,482,500.
Lot 537, "A Gilt Bronze Figure of Padmapani" from Nepal glowed beside a flower arrangment of gold orchids - both stunning. Close inspection reveals that he is holding the stem of a lotus blossom. This Padmapani depicts Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion and one of the principal deities in Mahayana Buddhism. Beautifully sculpted, he stands only 12 3/4 inches high. "Padmapani" means "holder of the lotus:"
"Worshipped in Nepal from at least the mid-6th century, Avalokiteshvara was one of the most popular Buddhist deities in the Katmandu Valley, his worship rivaling that of the Buddha himself. Demand for images of this auspicious bodhisattva was therefore staggering and from an early period, craftsmen throughout the valley were executing works in wood, stone, paint, and bronze. A distinct Newari style of representation emerged from this locus of fervent worship, influenced initially by the Gupta dynasty and later, as seen in this work, the Pala dynasty of Northeastern India. The deity is nearly always depicted standing, in contrast to the Indian tradition of showing him seated..." (Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Lot 537 has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $578,500.
A humbler, more naturalistic Tara from Nepal is illustrated above, Lot 545, "A Polychromed Wood Figure of Tara," with her hands held in front of her in the gesture of teaching, was most likely based on a real-life model. Originally from Spink and Son, Ltd., this work was published in "Body, Speech and Mind," Spink and Son, Ltd., 1998 (p. 54f, cat. no. 28., included in Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Lot 545 has an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. It sold for $37,500.
Lot 531, "A Gray Schist Figure of a Bodhisattva," from Gandhara, 2nd to 3rd Century, is illustrated above, and is 34 inches high.
Lot 531 has an estimate of $120,000 to 180,000. It sold for $218,500.
Another Gandharan sculpture, (not illustrated), Lot 512, "A Large Gray Schist Figure of a Standing Buddha," 2nd to 3rd Century, has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, and sold for $842,500. It was 45 1/2 inches high.
The beautiful cover from the 16th century illustrated above (Lot 611), "A Gilt Album Folio With Birds," was created with pen, ink, ground pigment and gold on wasli. It has an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. It sold for $12,500.
Lot 551, "Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha," illustrated below is as winsome as they come. Finely cast in Tibet in the 15th century, he is seated in dhyanasana, and his face has a "benevolent expression with upturned mouth and elongated eyes flanked by pendulous pierced earlobes, the hair in tight curls over the ushnisha and topped with a knop, the base sealed." (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
Lot 551 has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $194,500, well past its high estimate.
Christie's sale of Indian and Southeast Asian Art achieved $7,670,750.
Hugo Weihe, International Director, International Specialist, Head of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, commented: "The sale was fully recognized and rewarded for its tightly curated selection of works of rarity and importance. The top lot of the sale, the thangka of the Green Tara, generated a bidding war, resulting in a world auction record for a thangka at $1.76 million." Sandhya Jain-Patel, Specialist of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, New York, added: "Top lots, especially sculptures from Gandhara, Nepal, and Tibet, were underbid and bought by both first time as well as seasoned buyers, indicating the ever-widening appeal of this category. The importance of this achievement will set the stage for stronger sales in the future."
Christie's New York Fall Asian Art Week achieved $44.7 million following four days of sales.
Jonathan Stone, Chairman and International Head, Asian Art, said: “An 18th century Joseon dynasty blue and white dragon jar, selling for $3.2 million, led a dynamic and diverse series of sales. This week’s auctions, exhibitions, and events demonstrated again Christie’s commitment to all cultures and epochs of Asian art. Other highlights included Hasegawa Tonin’s screens, Egrets and ducks in a winter landscape ($626,500), Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s painting, Untitled, ($962,500), a thangka of the Green Tara, a world auction record for a Tibetan painting ($1,762,500), and the 12th-10th century B.C. archaic bronze, zun ($1,426,500). There was global participation, reflecting a world-wide demand for the greatest objects of Asian art.”