R ichard and Magdalena Ernst shared a fascination for Tibetan and Nepalese art and culture, engendered by a trip to Kathmandu in 1968 where the first of many of their Tibetan thangkas paintings was acquired. Their knowledge of Tibetan art increased with every new purchase from art dealers and auction houses worldwide. One of the first thangkas they bought on their return home from Asia turned out to be one of the most important of the later Tibetan works in the collection, the circa 1600 Ngor monastery Vajrabhairava (fig. 1). The thangka was among their favourite paintings and hung in pride of place in the salon of their home in Winterthur, Switzerland.
This large and beautifully painted work was purchased in 1969 for a relatively small sum from a curio and cuckoo clock shop in Lugano — a tale they delighted in recounting. Another Tibetan thangka was acquired at the same time from this unlikely venue, which soon became recognised as a unique eighteenth-century work depicting episodes from the life of the Ngor abbot Rinchen Gyaltsen (b. 1717) (fig. 2). The painting has since been extensively published and it was included in the seminal 1977 exhibition at the Grand Palais, “Dieux et démons de l’Himâlaya”. Apparently, both thangkas had been deposited in the curio shop by Tibetan refugees, a large community of whom had recently been welcomed by the Swiss Confederation.
Magdalena had a particular fondness for the ethereal fifteenth century Tibetan thangka depicting Guhyasamaja in union with his consort (fig. 3). For long periods there would be a telling gap on the wall of their home where the picture would have hung, while it was travelling to major museum exhibitions of Himalayan art in Australia and North America.
One of Richard’s favourite thangkas in the collection was the fifteenth century ithyphallic buffalo faced Vajrabhairava, with multiple arms, legs and heads, and a fearsome appearance tempered by the delicacy of his crowns and jewellery painted in raised and burnished gold (fig. 4). The god is a wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddhist Lord of Transcendental Wisdom, which Richard thought of as a fitting metaphor to become a successful scientist, one who needed the strength and endurance expressed in the fierce outward form, but with the benevolent wisdom that underlies the nature of the deity.
Indeed, success in his chosen field of science — nuclear magnetic resonance — led to Richard’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded in 1991. His work in spectroscopy led to the advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that are crucial in medical application today. Furthermore he used his scientific technique to better understand the composition, palette and age of the thangkas in the collection, writing in 2001 about his two great passions, science and Tibetan thangkas, in “Arts and Sciences: A Personal Perspective of Tibetan Painting”, Chimia International Journal for Chemistry, 55(11): 900-914. Sotheby’s is honoured to offer these fine and rare Tibetan thangkas from the Richard and Magdalena Ernst Collection of Himalayan Art.