The enlightened collectors’ guide to Buddha statues

By Geoff Harris

Recently I was browsing a large local antiques fair when a collection of older Buddha statues caught my eye.

“This one is from the Gandhāra period,” said the dealer, reffering to the Buddhist culture of ancient Gandhāra – a hotspot of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent from the 3rd century BC to approximately 1200 AD. I am going to give the dealer the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant to say in the ‘Gandhara’ style, as if the statue really was from that period, I suspect it would be worth a lot more than the £80 or so he was asking for it. “It was ripped out of a temple,” he added in passing.

Credit: British museum

This got me thinking. Buddha statues are very attractive and collectible, so how do you avoid getting ripped off in the event that you do meet an unscrupulous dealer? And what are the rules regarding export from old sacred sites?

The first big tip is to have at least a working knowledge of the various periods in Buddhist art. Although the historical Buddha lived and taught around the border of modern day Nepal and India, many of the great works of Buddhist art come from much further afield – for example China, Japan, the historical region of Tibet and South East Asia.

One of the greatest earliest exponents of Buddhism in India, the Emperor Ashoka, encouraged missionaries to travel to Central Asia, where it spread rapidly along the Silk Road and other trade routes into China, and eventually into Korea and Japan. Indeed, early Chinese translations of Buddhist texts were key to ensuring their survival into the present day. Missionaries and trading also spread the Buddhist teaching, or ‘dharma,’ into Southeast Asia.

Credit: Christies

This is a massive subject and way beyond the scope of this blog, but there are some great online resources and books which can quickly get you up to speed. One of my favourite books is Buddhist Art and Architecture by Robert E Fisher – you can pick up used copies for around £5 or new for £15 and it’s a great primer. Meanwhile Himalayan Art Resources also comes in useful when it comes to ascertaining the value and provenance of Buddha statues from that part of the world (along with paintings and tapestries).

What about more practical tips to avoid getting sold a fake? In an interesting blog on the Christie’s website, Asian art specialist Tristan Bruck has some useful tips.

He strongly recommends trying to handle the actual statue, rather than relying on photos, and although this might be a bit trickier at antiques fairs owing to Covid-19, most dealers will allow you to pick the item up so long as they can then sanitise it. Handling it will also reveal things that don’t look right. As Bruck notes, forgers often work from a front-on photograph of the genuine article, which means they have to figure it out as they go along when it comes to the decoration around the back and on the base. Maybe the folds of a robe fold strangely, or jewellery sits in an awkward way. Or maybe the back and base just look a bit rough and unfinished. Drapery generally is hard for a forger to pull-off properly, along with the Buddha’s hands – so if anything looks a bit crude, that is a warning sign (or at very the least that the statue is poorly made and potentially overpriced).

As with any antique, condition is also really important, and a statue with a well-documented provenance will always be worth more than one with no documentation at all. So what about my potential dealers off-hand claim that the statue he was selling had been “ripped off a temple?” Is that ethical? Various conventions and legal procedures exist to combat the trade of illicit antiquities. As well as abiding by the rules of such conventions, dealers should also take care. Buying antiquities from a reputable source, such as a dealer who is a member of an antiquity trade association, is necessary and will provide security and trust. See here for a useful overview of the various international agreements.

Of course, much of the above will apply mainly to higher-priced Buddhist statues. Many readers will be happy paying under £100 or so if the statue is attractive and will look good around the house, without worrying too much about provenance. And while it is important to avoid supporting any trade in artefacts which have been ripped from their original venues, you can’t always be sure of the full story – particularly as older buildings are often not so well protected in the developing world as they are in the west. Do let us know if you have found any interesting old Buddhist statues during your antique hunts.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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