An exceptional sandstone head of Buddha, Northern Wei dynasty, Yungang Caves, late 5th Century

Lot 727. An exceptional sandstone head of Buddha, Northern Wei dynasty, Yungang Caves, late 5th Century; 12 in., 30.5 cm. Estimate 40,000 — 60,000 USD. Lot sold 228,000 USD. Photo: Sotheby's.

the fine white granular sandstone well carved in subtle volumes to form an elongated head with crisp bow-shaped lips tenderly lifted at the corners in a beatific smile above the channeled dimple on the chin, the long nose rising to the slightly downcast eyes defined by crescent-shape lines below gracefully arched brows, with the hair swept up behind the pendulous ears into a simple domed ushnisha, Japanese box.

ProvenanceOld Japanese Private Collection before WWII.

NoteThe carving of this head is characteristic of the style of Yungang caves near Datong in Shanxi province, which were largely constructed between 398 AD and 494 AD, when Pingcheng, modern Datong, was capital of the Northern Wei period.  Several Buddha figures with similar features can be seen in the niches of Cave 5 and in a frieze above the main figures of Cave 7 at Yungang, and are illustrated in Zhongguo shiku: Yungang shiku, Beijing, 1998, pls. 41 and 45, 144 and 145.  The delicate incised lines defining the eyes can also be seen, for example, on figures of Cave 6 and 8, ibid., pls. 125, 177 and 178. 

Compare a sandstone head of a Buddha from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with similar features but a slightly different treatment of the eyes, illustrated in Handbook of the Collection, 1993, p. 303; and a complete standing figure with a similar head, in the Museé Guimet, Paris, is published in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections: Buddhist Sculpture, vol. II, Tokyo, 1990, pl. 9.  See also a similar head sold in these rooms, 31st March 2005, lot 87.

It is important to note that the sculptural cycles at the Yungang complex were richly painted, as evident in early photographs such as those taken by Osvald Siren in 1925, for the important series, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, London, 1925, pls. 17-74. It is extremely rare for removed fragments such as the present head to retain such ample traces of their original pigment scheme, compare in particular the coloration visible on Buddhas in niches, pls. 40, 60 and 67B. 

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, including Property from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 19-20 march 2007