T he Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian department is thrilled to announce the top-selling Himalayan bronze of September Asia Week: a gilt-bronze figure of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso which sold for an astonishing $1,510,000 – almost 20-times the low estimate.
A GILT-BRONZE FIGURE DEPICTING NGAWANG LOBSANG GYATSO, DALAI LAMA V. TIBET, 17TH/18TH CENTURY. SOLD FOR $1,510,000.
What is behind this astonishing result? The million-dollar inscription on the verso of the sculpture.
Once the initial images of the bronze reached me, I began working on a translation of the inscription from Tibetan to English. Having trained for ten years as a Tibetan language interpreter prior to joining Sotheby’s, these days I translate most of the Tibetan inscriptions on the bronzes and thangka paintings, which Sotheby’s has the privilege to sell. And what I found on this sculpture is most interesting.
DETAIL OF THE GILT-BRONZE FIGURE DEPICTING NGAWANG LOBSANG GYATSO, DALAI LAMA V SHOWING THE INSCRIPTION.
The inscription on the throne back of the sculpture reads:
This statue of the great, omniscient, powerful and victorious Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso was commissioned as an object of faith by Je Lingpa Samdrup Gyalpo in Lhasa. This statue contains the relics of the Tathagata beings, blessed substances from the holy masters of Tibet and India, and mantras of the four classes of Tantra … (etc.)
What the inscription is telling us is not only who the bronze is depicting, who commissioned the sculpture and where, but also that what is inside of the sculpture is significant.
Tibetan bronzes traditionally have hollow cores, and are filled with precious substances and/or relics as part of the consecration process. Typically this can include a combination of the cremated remains of a religious teacher, semi-precious stones, excerpts from religious texts, and blessed substances such as barley kernels, protection cords, or juniper incense. The hollow core of the bronze is then sealed with a baseplate and incised with a double dorje or vishvavajra, which you can see in our bronze below:
DETAIL OF THE UNDERSIDE OF THE BASE OF THE GILT-BRONZE FIGURE DEPICTING NGAWANG LOBSANG GYATSO, DALAI LAMA V.
It is common for Tibetan bronzes on the art market to have lost their original baseplates and consecration materials (either by force or by handling). We also regularly see ‘modern’ or 20th Century baseplates that have been re-soldered onto bronzes that are centuries old. However, the baseplate on our bronze does appear original to the work. As such, we can infer that the baseplate has never been forcibly opened, and that the consecration materials may remain intact. Thanks to x-ray technology, here we can even take a glimpse of the contents of the interior of the bronze:
The inscription tells us that the bronze contains “the relics of the Tathagata (i.e. enlightened) beings, blessed substances from the holy masters of Tibet and India, and mantras (i.e. sacred slogans) of the four classes of Tantra (i.e. classification of esoteric Buddhism).”
In this case, the relics of the Tathagata beings are the golden egg here. The goose that lays the golden egg, of course, is the fabulous bronze casting of such an illustrious character. Great attention has been given to this portrait: the sensuous modeling of the face and figure; the use of elaborate chasing to show the richness of the Great Fifth's robes, embroidered with dragons and foliate motifs; the distinctly recognisable oval-shaped face with wide eyes, the pointed moustache and receding hairline, the imposing girth of his figure. But what transforms this figure from an historic icon and a most excellent example of bronze casting into an object of devotion is the sacred relics within the bronze.
This fabulous bronze came to us from a private Italian family collection. It was acquired in the 1960s by the grandfather of the current owner from Z. Beldi Oggetti d’Arte in Turin, Italy, and has remained in the family until now. For further information about the Fifth Dalai Lama, please visit our e-catalogue here.