O n 22 June, Sotheby's Hong Kong began a special sale of Buddhist art from the collection of Cheng Huan, a well-known barrister and writer. Collectors will surely want to browse the selection of 90 works, which encapsulate the erudition and breadth of Cheng's collecting journey.
Among the works is an extremely rare gilt-bronze votive figure of Avalokiteshvara, which dates to 576 during the Northern Qi dynasty, one of the most vibrant periods in the history of Chinese art, as its openness toward foreigners, their ideas, beliefs and goods immensely enriched the local cultural climate. The inscription on this rare finely cast votive figure can be paraphrased to indicate that on the eighth day of the fourth month of the seventh year of Wuping, a figure of Avalokiteshvara was commissioned to commemorate the death of Buddhist disciple Tian, with the hope that he stays eternally devout.
Also included is a vivid thangka from 19th century Buryatia, a land situated along the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and a region that shares a linguistic and religious heritage with Mongolia. After the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, its dominion remained within the Russian empire, however pilgrims and monks continued to travel to neighboring Mongolia, and as far as Tibet and Nepal, resulting in a continuous transmission of thangkas, ritual objects and artistic influences.
The selection of works from Cheng's collection offers a plethora of gilt-bronze sculptures including Buddhist deities and lamas, and an eclectic selection of thangkas and ritual objects. The following are just some of the notable works from the auction, highlighted by Julian King, Sotheby's international specialist of Chinese works of art.
Highlights include a finely cast gilt votive stele depicting the Amitabha triad of the Buddha of Endless Light, flanked by Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, a popular subject matter in the Sui dynasty. A 13th-century bronze stupa features a tiered upper section with closed lotus finial, associated with the Kadampa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and is closely related to the other examples now in the British Museum and in the Newark Museum. Two richly gilt votive plaques, bearing marks and period of Qianlong, are inscribed in Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian and Tibetan, the first depicting the arhat Kanakavatsa and the second the eight-armed goddess Marici. There is also an 18th-century gilt bronze figure that appears to depict the first Panchen Lama, however without an inscription a definite attribution is impossible.
A magnificent 17th-century large parcel-gilt bronze figure of Shakyamuni Buddha depicts the historical Buddha seated with his right hand in the earth-touching position, bhumisparsha mudra, recalling a momentous episode in which he triumphs over the Mara, a demon associated with the veils and distractions of mundane existence. In response to Mara's challenge questioning Shakyamuni's worthiness and entitlement to seek spiritual enlightenment, Shakyamuni moved his right hand to touched the ground stating "the earth is my witness."
A 17th-century gilt-copper repousse figure depicts Padmasambhava the legendary Indian pandita, known as Guru Rinpoche to Tibetans and credited with establishing Buddhism in Tibet. In the 8th century, the Indian abbot Shantarakshita and the Tibetan chögyal or dharma king Trisong Detsen invited the tantrika Padmasambhava to make the arduous journey to Tibet.
Rounding out the highlights are a bronze tsa tsa mould of Simhanada Lokeshvara with inscriptions dedicated to the deity and for purification, and a gilt bronze figure of the seventh Tai Situpa Lama bearing an inscription that translates as: "This apparition body of Prajnaparamita affixed to a lotus, Legshe Mawai Nyima, of supreme limitlessness bliss, was commissioned by the patron Tsukphu Lobsang Rabten of Zhang Zhung."
The Collecting Journey of Cheng Huan
Cheng Huan was educated in Malaysia, Singapore, London and Cambridge University. In 1976 he was called to the Hong Kong Bar and in 1988 was made a Queen’s Counsel. He was an Adjunct Professor at two Hong Kong Universities. He became a Senior Counsel when Hong Kong’s sovereignty reverted to China in 1997.
At Cambridge University he became close friends with Tenzing Namgyal, the then Crown Prince of Sikkim. Two visits to that remote mountain kingdom were ‘both an eye and a mind opener’, inspiring him with a passion for Tibetan Buddhism. His collection was acquired over decades wherever he was travelling but mostly from the London dealership Spink & Son and from his good friend Susan Chen in Hong Kong. In 2014 he sold other parts of his collection (Buddhist items and jades), which came from his Elizabethan stately home Stockton House in Wiltshire. The current selection is offered as he seeks a less cluttered life and to make room for new interests.