A gilt copper alloy deity from a Vajrabhairava shrine 

A gilt copper alloy deity from a Vajrabhairava shrine, Yongle period, 15th century. Sold for: $893,000. Photo: Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- Bonhams’ Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian auction on March 16 fetched a total of $5.73 million. Himalayan Works of Art were hotly contested and top quality works in every section achieved high prices in the packed standing-room-only sales room. 

The highest-selling lot of the evening was a 15th century gilt copper alloy deity from a Vajrabhairava shrine, which sold for $893,000, soaring past its high estimate of $350,000. The sculpture comes from a private English collection and is an early 15th-century depiction of Surya (the Sun god). It belongs to a set of eight Hindu deities, which would have occupied the front edge of a throne for a monumental Buddhist sculpture of Vajrabhairava. Out of this group of eight, five others have been identified in private or public collections, and two remain unknown. 

Other top sellers include: 

· An outstanding gilt copper alloy figure of the prominent composite deity, Chakrasamvara that fetched $605,000. The 15th century masterpiece came from a private European collection and depicts the eponymous twelve-armed male deity and the female deity, Vajravarahi, locked in a passionate embrace; 

A gilt copper alloy figure of Chakrasamvara, Tibet, 15th century

 A gilt copper alloy figure of Chakrasamvara, Tibet, 15th century. Sold for: $605,000 (€568,876). Photo: Bonhams.

The deities in yab-yum with twelve-armed Chakrasamvara wearing a tiger skin around his waist and a garland of severed heads descending between his legs, Vajravarahi wraps her limbs around him, gazing into the first of his four wrathful faces. 9 in. (22.8 cm) high

Notes: 'The yogin should imagine himself to be in the state of Heruka, which consists of wisdom and skillful means.
The yogin should imagine the state of Heruka to be the essence of the inseparable union between wisdom and skillful means.
The pleasure caused by the ardent, undivided union of the two is nothing but great bliss (mahasukha).
The distinction between wisdom and compassion is like that of a lamp and its light. These two are of one undivided essence.
They appear in the form of one mind; it is caused by the union of wisdom and skillful means, and it realizes the complete enlightenment....
This is the consciousness of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi.'
--(after Huntington & Bangdel, Circle of Bliss, Columbus, 2003, p. 236)

Through its beauty, complexity, and energy, this masterpiece of Tibetan sculpture expresses one of the most important transcendental ideals in Buddhist art – the supreme bliss of enlightenment attained through the perfect union of wisdom and compassion (skillful means).

The male deity, Chakrasamvara, represents Buddha-like compassion. The female deity, Vajravarahi, embodies Buddha-like wisdom. They are depicted here in ecstatic embrace. He cradles her in his primary arms, producing vajrahumkara mudra by crossing the vajra and ghanta in his hands, symbolizing that wisdom and compassion have dissolved into one perfect interpenetrative union.

Modeled by a master craftsmen, Vajravarahi is fully extended in the union. She would almost slip through Chakrasamvara's grasp but for her left arm contouring around his right shoulder. Her right arm surges upward holding the ritual knife, which signifies the power of her transcendental wisdom. She presses herself against him fully, her legs suspended above her pelvis, her toes curling upwards. She vigorously surveys his face, reading the effects of her position; his tongue is pressed to the roof of his mouth and his eyes pierce forward in a state of heightened awareness. Meanwhile, his back face shows a more tender expression – almost wincing at the ecstasy.

Chakrasamvara (lit. 'wheel of bliss') is the transformative deity (yiddam) at the heart of the Chakrasamvara tantra – one of the most important Tantric wisdom traditions (a 'Mother root' tantra). This sculpture serves to inspire the practitioner to complete his practice and achieve that same blissful state of mind. Until then, every symbolic nuance of the deity's iconography will help him to fully comprehend the deity's consciousness. The sculptor has therefore rendered every detail with expert clarity.

Chakrasamvara's legs are slender and nimble with pendant jewels gracing across his feet. He and Vajravarahi are youthful and beautifully adorned with opulent gilding and detailed jewelry, reinforcing the perfection of their bodies and minds. His two-tiered crown is rendered seamlessly across his four heads. Turquoise-embedded foliate leaves rise above five dried-skulls, symbolizing that he has flawlessly developed the five transcendent insights of the DhyaniBuddhas. His crown rests upon his tight curls which converge into a tall jatamukata of interwoven locks nesting a crispvisvajra, denoting that he acts to serve all sentient beings.

Held between elegant fingers, his attributes are consummately detailed as well. His axe, which cuts off birth and death, has a serrated face, crosshatched ear, and a vajra-poll. The head of Brahma swings by his hair in dynamic movement, suggesting the forward arc of Chakrasamvara's radiating arms. Even the dome of the ghanta in his primary left hand has small-pitted marks that replicate the beaded swags that typically embellish these ritual objects. 

Gilt bronze figures of Chakrasamvara demanded the best craftsmen in order to produce complex meditational images that could both express and inspire the most exquisite state of mind. Chakrasamvara features prominently across all Tibetan Buddhist schools, and is the principal transformative deity of both Kagyu and Sakya lineages. The Phagdru Kagyu sect installed Chakrasamvara as the principal deity of Drigung monastery in Lhasa (founded 1179). Chakrasamvara is also key for the Newars of Nepal, who perceived the entire Kathmandu valley as his mandala(celestial abode). They were the master painters and sculptors who produced superlative works for Tibetan patrons, such as the Sakyas at Ngor monastery (founded 1429). The thangkas of Ngor are replete with images of Chakrasamvara, and it is likely that the present sculpture was produced within this context as well.

Rising to great prominence in the 14th-16th centuries, the Kagyu and Sakya orders formed strong ties with the imperial Yuan and Ming courts, and Tibetan Buddhist iconography strongly informed Buddhist art of the early Ming period. Images of Chakrasamvara proliferated during this exchange, as evidenced by a spectacular Yongle mark and period example (r. 1402-1424) sold at Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 October 2007, lot 810. Later, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) became an initiate of the Chakrasamvara tantra and designed the Pulesi temple at Chengde as a Chakrasamvara mandala.

Published: Franziska Rüttimann, ed., Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebesleid in der Weltkunst, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 2002, p. 131, no. 93.

ExhibitedLiebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebesleid in der Weltkunst, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 2002-2003

Provenance: Private European Collection
Acquired from the Private Collection of Ulrich von Schroeder in the late 1980s/early 90s

· A 14th century gilt copper alloy figure of Virupa, from Tibet or Nepal that sold for $581,000, almost five times its high estimate. The small sculpture is finely detailed and depicts Virupa, a former abbot of Nalanda monastery, and the first mortal master of the 'Path with the Result', a refined tantric practice which can provide enlightenment in a single lifetime. The sculpture’s high copper content and fine modeling indicate the superior craftsmanship of Newari sculptors commissioned by Tibetan patrons; major Virupa bronzes of such exceptional quality exist only in museum collections.

A gilt copper alloy figure of Virupa, Tibet or Nepal, 14th century

A gilt copper alloy figure of Virupa, Tibet or Nepal, 14th century. Sold for US$ 581,000 (€546,309). Photo: Bonhams.

Wearing a floral garland marked by inset turquoise and a crown securing his finely detailed coiffure, the paunchy mahasiddha sits on a plump, beaded lotus throne. 4 7/8 in. (12.5 cm) high

Notes: Virupa was the first mortal master of the 'Path with the Result', a refined tantric practice which can provide enlightenment in a single lifetime. Formerly an abbot of Nalanda, Virupa received the 'Path' from the deity Vajra Nairatmya after giving up on decades of unsuccessful attempts at the Chakrasamvara tantra. His subsequent rituals cost him his affiliation, as other members of the monastic hierarchy frowned upon his use of meat and alcohol. Banished from Nalanda, he wandered as a yogin, performing a number of miracles.

This ebullient sculpture recalls the most beloved episode of Virupa's life. One day he stumbled into a tavern and began feasting. When the hostess enquired as to payment, he assured her that he would settle his tab once the sun had crossed a line he drew on the floor. Once she agreed, however, he mischievously pointed to the sun and trapped it in its course so he could keep gorging for days. Meanwhile, the kingdom plunged into cosmic disarray. Eventually the king, fearing widespread crop failures, rushed to empty his coffers to pay Virupa's bill.

There are a number of small Virupa bronzes in museums, but few are as sweet as this one. Its high copper content and fine modeling indicate the superior craftsmanship of Newari sculptors commissioned by Tibetan patrons. His left leg leans into the yogapatana while his toes press against the antelope skin spread underneath. Resting his weight on his right hand, he is relaxed but robust. More than pleasing to the eye, the sculpture's numerous bumps and swells also create various textures that are delight on the fingertips, attested to by the gilding's wear-pattern produced from centuries of ritual handling.

This bronze has a 'brother' from the same workshop held in The Rietberg Museum. Both sit on gilded bases with distinctive beaded rims that harken back to the Pala style. The Rietberg Virupa has been attributed to the Khasa Malla kingdom, which controlled much of West Nepal and West Tibet between the 12th and 14th centuries. It uses a silver alloy, possibly to emphasize Virupa's dark skin, as he is sometimes portrayed. Meanwhile, the present sculpture has a more majestic presence, depicting him with a crown in a more commanding posture.

Provenance: Private European Collection
Acquired from the Private Collection of Ulrich von Schroeder in the late 1980s/early 90s

· A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara, Swat valley, 8th/9th century, which achieved $365,000, over 12 times its high estimate of $30,000. The figure wears patterned silks and sits on a lotus plinth. He holds a lotus in a gesture of charity. The Swat Valley served as an important repository for Buddhism after the Huns swept through the Kushan Empire in the 6th century. Spanning the 7th and 10th centuries, the small corpus of Swat bronzes produced demonstrates an adaptive artistic tradition responding to nearby regional styles, such as the Gandhara, Gupta, and Kashmir; 

A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara, Swat valley, 8th-9th century

 A copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara, Swat valley, 8th-9th century. Sold for US$ 365,000 (€343,206)Photo: Bonhams.

Wearing patterned silks, seated on a lotus plinth supported by benign lions, holding a lotus and displaying the gesture of charity, his eyes inlaid with silver below a vajra-crown. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm) high 

Notes: The Swat Valley served as an important repository for Buddhism after the Huns swept through the Kushan Empire in the 6th century, destroying many monasteries within the ancient region of Gandhara. Spanning the 7th and 10th centuries, the small corpus of Swat bronzes demonstrates an adaptive artistic tradition responding to nearby regional styles, such as the Gandhara, Gupta, and Kashmir. With its rich copper alloy and long, slender eyes, the comparison with Kashmir bronzes is most noticeable in this example.

Compare with a closely related example of Maitreya in the Nelson-Atkins Museum ascribed to Kashmir, 9th century, and another Maitreya in the British Museum, attributed to Swat Valley, 8th-9th century, published in Pal, Bronzes of Kashmir, New Delhi, 1975, pp. 127 and 201, nos. 41 and 76.

Also compare the treatment of the lion-supported plinths to a number of examples held in The Palace Museum, Beijing and published in Gugong bowuyuan cang: wenwu zhenpin quanji; 60: Zangchuan fojiao zaoxiang, Hong Kong, 2008, pp. 10-6, nos. 9-15.

ProvenanceSotheby's, London, 11 October 1991, lot 535
Private Collection, New York

· A commanding 11th century copper alloy Chola sculpture of Shiva Sukhasanamutri from South India that realized $365,000. Coming from a private collection where it remained for over 20 years, this important bronze is an exceptional example of Chola sculpture produced during the rise of the empire; 

A copper of figure of Shiva Sukhasanamutri, South India, Chola period, 11th century

A copper of figure of Shiva Sukhasanamutri, South India, Chola period, 11th century. Sold for: $605,000 (€568,876). Photo: Bonhams.

Resplendent, seated in sukhasana (royal ease) with his right leg pendant in front of the lotus throne, adorned with abundant regalia including the ornate crown with sirischakraon the reverse and a five-pronged keyura medallion at the center of his tall headdress. 17 3/8 in. (44 cm) high

Notes: Shiva is depicted here with youth and vigor. His arched back and broad shoulders manifest a powerful frame resembling the head of a bull – a Tamil Nadu aesthetic prescription that traces back to the 11th century (cf., Nagaswamy, Timeless Delight, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 60). With his four hands, he holds the antelope, symbolizing the soul longing to reach Shivahood, and displays abhaya mudra, granting it divine protection. With varada mudra, he gently invites the soul to seek release from ignorance, while his axe embodies his power to cut through its fetters.

Initially coupled on a larger pedestal with an image of Parvati sold at Sotheby's, New York, March 27, 1991, lot 54, this regal figure depicts Shiva at his most benign – the giver of knowledge.

The pair are closely related to a large and important bronze of Shiva in the form of Kalyana-sundara held in the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad (ibid., pp. 140-9, no. 10). The rings around their thumbs and forefingers consist of similar tapered bands (cf. ibid., p. 147), and they wear a cluster of three bangles graduating in diameter around their wrists. Their waist cloths depict a central lion-face clasp with loops on either side, while each sports a bahu-valaya(shoulder ornament) that drapes over the right shoulder and flails outwards towards the bicep. 

The three examples are modeled with a degree of naturalism (particularly noticeable around the knees), situating them before later Chola bronzes that were given over to rigid textual prescriptions. Nagaswamy confidently attributes the Kalyana-sundara to the school of Rajaraja the Great (r. 985-1014), suggesting a similar date for the present sculpture. The illustrious martial king was an ardent devotee of Shiva who built the grand Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur. This Shiva, brimming with strength and assurance, displays a confident Lord produced at the height of the Chola Empire.

Provenance: Sotheby's, New York, 28 October 1991, lot 95
Private US Collection

· A carved schist head of Buddha from the ancient region of Gandhara, dated 3rd/4th century, which sold for $209,000, quickly exceeding its high estimate of $80,000. The sculpture is an exceptional and exemplifies the remarkable Greco-Roman legacy in Gandharan sculpture;  

A carved schist head of Buddha, Ancient region of Gandhara, 3rd-4th century

 A carved schist head of Buddha from the ancient region of Gandhara, dated 3rd-4th century. Sold for US$ 209,000 (€196,520)Photo: Bonhams.

With smooth stylized features and thick rippling locks over the ushnisha secured by a chain and disc pendant. 11 3/4 in. (29.7 cm) high 

Notes: Capturing a sense of serene interiority, the present lot is a superior example of its kind. Gandharan sculpture's Greco-Roman legacy and its evolution towards abstraction are seamlessly juxtaposed with the naturalistic curves of his nasal sidewall, nostrils, dimples, and chin, and the crisp ridges defining his lips, philtrum, eyelids, and eyebrows.

His locks emanate like rays of a resplendent light, secured by a fine beaded chain with a semi-circular central medallion that appears across a number of seated images of Preaching Buddha held in The British Museum (see Zwalf, A Catalogue of the Gandhara Sculpture in the British Museum, vol. II, London, 1996, pp. 19, 22 & 23, nos 20, 24 & 26).

A letter dated January 2nd, 1971 from Carl Winberg to the current owner's parents notes the bestowal of the head and explains the history of Taxila. Winberg was an America diplomat, Foreign Service officer, and agricultural attaché. He served in India, Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, The Congo, Australia and Bangladesh, before retiring in 1977. 

Provenance: Carl O. Winberg, before 1971
Gift to the current owner's parents by the above
Private Collection

. A spectacular gilt copper alloy and inset Vajracharya crown, Nepal, circa 12th/13th century that achieved $161,000, well past its $20,000 – 30,000 pre-sale estimate. The regal crown is triple-tiered and beautifully encrusted with gems and semi-precious stones. Elaborate ritual crowns of this type are worn by Newari Buddhist Vajracharyas, those who occupy the highest rank in the Buddhist community, when officiating religious ceremonies in Nepal. 

A gilt copper alloy and inset Vajracharya crown, Nepal, circa 12th-13th century

 A spectacular gilt copper alloy and inset Vajracharya crown, Nepal, circa 12th-13th century. Sold for US$ 161,000 (€151,386)Photo: Bonhams.

Triple-tiered with lotus-borne vajra finial and attached medallions of auspicious symbols and the five Dhyani Buddhas supported by kirtimukha masks and surrounded by elaborate foliate mandorlas inset with gems and semi-precious stones. 12 in. (30.5 cm) high

Notes: Elaborate ritual crowns of this type are worn by Newari Buddhist Vajracharyas when officiating religious ceremonies in Nepal. Vajracarya ('master of the thunderbolt') is both a caste and family name indicating those entitled to perform priestly functions. They command the highest rank in the Buddhist community, the equivalent of Brahmins in Hinduism. 

As noted by Pal, the Buddhas of the five directions and the axis mundial vajra finial '...add a cosmic dimension to the crown; by wearing it the priest himself becomes homologized with the cosmic principle or divine essence.' (Art of the Himalayas, New York, 1991, p. 49). As the godhead of the Vajra family, Akshobhya features most prominently, his winged kirtimukha with eyes of inset garnets, and his mandorla radiating with lapis lazuli.

An example in the Musée Guimet bearing a dedication dated 1145 has served as the basis for the small group of crowns known to survive (Beguin, L'Inde et le monde de Indianisé, Paris, 1992, p. 126, MA4929). All from this group are finely detailed with lapis, garnets, and turquoise. The treatment of the primary Buddha is common to all with squat proportions and curling scarves flanking the shoulders. The only variation in the present example is the absence of inlay along the rim, which may indicate a later date of production.

Compare with other 12th-century examples in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Pal, Art of Nepal, Los Angeles, 1985, p. 49, no. S27), The Zimmerman Family Collection (Pal, op. cit., p. 49, no. 1) and the Potala Palace Collection (Berger, et al., Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World, Santa Ana, 2003, p. 120-1, no. 51). Another, formerly in the Kemper Collection, was sold at Christie's, Amsterdam, 11 October 1994, lot 54. A later example is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Guy, Indian Temple Sculpture, London, 2007, p. 59, pl. 59).

Provenance: Private English Collection, 1970s/80s-2014

On his sale’s success, Edward Wilkinson, Consultant for the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art department commented, “These very good results show the continuing demand for top quality works in this sector. There was strong competition from collectors around the globe cementing New York’s position as a leader in the auctioning of Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art.” 

The next Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art sale will be held in September 2015.