Zheng Huaxing, Sotheby's specialist Nicolas Chow and Yixi Pingcuo with the Yongle Buddha.

HONG KONG - Yixi Pingcuo, the founder and director of the Beijing-based Buddhist art advisory Seer Culture, calls me late in the evening before our sale to announce that there will be drama in the saleroom the following day when lot 3075 comes up for sale, the magnificent early 15th century Buddha. For the last few weeks, Yixi has been infatuated with this extraordinarily large Buddha cast in the early 15th century for the Yongle Emperor, a Tibetan Buddhist. It represents the Buddha as Shakyamuni, unadorned but for a simple robe and seated in the earth-touching gesture. The casting is faultless and the figure ranks among the five largest recorded gilt-bronze figures from this glorious period.

Like the Yongle Emperor, Yixi Pingcuo is a devout Tibetan Buddhist. He was raised in a monastery and has for the last fifteen years promoted the arts of Tibet, organizing sales and exhibitions of Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan Buddhist bronzes. Yixi wears his signature white shirt always unbuttoned down to the chest to reveal a necklace from which dangles a large disc lined with silver. The disc is cut out from the skull of a lama. I do not mean the friendly camelid that roams the high Peruvian plateaus; this is a kapala, the relic of a Tibetan teacher of the dharma. It is Yixi who encouraged Zheng Huaxing, a collector of Buddhist art from Zhongshan in Guangdong province, to come and preview the Buddha in our office two weeks ago. My colleague Carrie Li showed him the piece and he immediately fell under its spell. Before leaving, Zheng admired it one last time and said: “you are beautiful, I will take you home.”

Sui Niansheng, Zheng Huaxing and Yixi Pingcuo.

On October 8, the celebratory sales for our 40th anniversary of Sotheby’s Asia reach their last day. The week of sales has seen records shattered in most fields and expectations run high for our sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art. The room is packed and, despite us adding extra rows of chairs, there are at least a good hundred people standing in the back of the room – collectors, dealers, journalists, random sightseers. Henry Howard-Sneyd, the unchallenged maestro of our Hong Kong salerooms, kicks off the morning sale with various private collections. The room is frenzied. Almost each and every lot finds a buyer and we follow the prices as they skyrocket far, far beyond the edge of the graph paper. 

Yixi Pingcuo, Sotheby's Nicolas Chow and Zheng Huaxing.

The auction feast continues after a brief lunch break. Yixi Pingcuo, the kapala glistening on his bare chest, walks slowly down the centre aisle. He is accompanied by Zheng Huaxing and Sui Niansheng, a Beijing-based collector, unmistakable for his trademark afro hairstyle, his pink tainted frames and the lovely diamond belt that he sports on all occasions. They are all dressed in black from head to toe and sit down at the front of the room. The three amigos have obviously walked straight out of a Tarantino movie.

Henry announces lot 3075, the magnificent gilt-bronze figure of Shakyamuni. The room is tense and so am I. I munch on yet another chocolate from the large box our administrator Carmen so kindly buys me every season, to keep my nerves under control. Henry opens the bid at HK$35 million. Zheng Huaxing raises his hand and extends his five fingers to signal a HK$50 million bid. A bid comes from someone standing in the back of the room and all heads turn. It is Cai Mingchao, the head of Xiamen Harmony Auction Company, a skinny, diminutive man dressed in a signature short-sleeved tailored black mao jacket. Cai is famous for having bought a record-breaking gilt-bronze Yongle Buddha in our Speelman sale in 2006 for approximately US$18 million. He is also infamous for a wild act of patriotism, having bought and not paid for the Yves Saint-Laurent animal heads from the Summer Palace at a rival auction house in Paris in 2009, on account that these national treasures were robbed from China and should have been returned. Needless to say, Cai is an excellent friend of mine.

Henry shouts his HK$60 million bid and Zheng immediately answers “yi yi” (100 million). The room gasps. All eyes are on Cai who does not take long to raise his hand again. Not far from him, standing at the back of the room, a new player, Poly Museum, takes the bid to HK$120 million. Zheng shouts “yi yi wuqian wan” (150 million). More gasping and the room breaks into a loud applause. Poly drops out and Cai, relentless, continues to fight until the bid is with him at HK$200 million. Henry, who conducts the sale in Mandarin and English, declares that the enormity of the number sits far beyond his Mandarin abilities. More applause.

Sotheby’s Henry Howard-Sneyd at the rostrum.

Zheng is quick to bid again and Henry shouts HK$210 million. Cai Mingchao shakes his head and gives up. One last time, Henry takes a view of the room, and finally brings the hammer down. The room explodes in a thunderous applause. Yixi and Zheng stand up, bow and pray to the four cardinal points and the entire room treats them to a standing ovation. From the phone bank where I have been perched all this time, I run to greet and thank them in the room and quickly whisk them away towards our Preferred lounge. The crowd cheers, the press and some bystanders follow the group, like the entourage of rock stars. We pop a bottle of champagne, raise our glasses to the heroes of the day, and I rush back to the saleroom to follow the sale.

Half an hour later, the setting is ready for the press call. The Yongle Buddha stands high on a pedestal, oblivious to all the noise and excitement, and calling the earth to witness. The area is cordoned off. TV crews and photographers are getting impatient and Yixi and Zheng finally make their entrance. They both kneel on the ground and pray three times to the Buddha that they have just purchased for HK$236,440,000 (US$30.5 million).

Zheng Huaxing prays to the Buddha that he has just purchased.

The Buddha will finally return home.