Lot 2704. A highly important and monumental imperial gilt-lacquered wood figure of the Medicine Buddha, Qing dynasty, 18th century. The figure: 68 in. (172.7 cm.) high; gilt-lacquered wood pedestal: 27 in. (68.5 cm.) high. Estimate HKD 30,000,000 - HKD 50,000,000. Price realised HKD 31,325,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.
The Buddha is shown seated in padmasana with his right hand extended in varadamudraand his left hand held above his lap, with palm upward in dhyanamudra, clad in voluminous robes gathered above the waist, the face with a serene expression and the forehead inset with a lapis lazuli urna. Below the multitude of snail-shell curls of hair painted in black and highlighted with blue pigment over the ushnisha. The chest with a concealed cavity opening at the back for consecration.
Provenance: Acquired by Martin S. Rosenblatt for Gump’s in Kyoto, Japan, between 1936-1948
An American private Collection, acquired circa 2008, and on loan to Gump's San Francisco until 2018
C.G. Wilson, Gump’s, Treasure Trade, A Story of San Francisco, New York, 1949 (cover)
J.L. Roseman, N. Birmingham and D.D. Saeks, Gump’s Since 1861, A San Francisco Legend, San Francisco, 1991, p. 135 and dustjacket
Exhibited: Gump’s, San Francisco, California, c. 1948-2018
The Gump’s Buddha. A monumental Seated Medicine Buddha
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s
Having welcomed visitors to Gump’s for a half century and more, this beloved sculpture of the Buddha has become a San Francisco icon. In fact, both locals and Gump’s personnel have long and fondly said that “The gilt Buddha … is the only item displayed in the store that is not for sale.” But, no more. With the closing of Gump’s in 2018, the luxury emporium’s owners are offering this very impressive, very important sculpture for sale and seeking an appropriate new home for it.
Presented in the guise of a monk, this magnificent lacquered-and-gilt-wood sculpture represents a Buddha 佛像 as indicated by the robes, urna, ushnisha, benevolent countenance, distended earlobes, small snail-shell curls of hair, and webbed fingers. Typically represented by a painted disk or an inset cabochon jewel and often incorrectly termed a “third eye” or even a caste mark, the urna 光毫 is the curl of white hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows from which issues a ray of light illuminating all worlds 眉間光. The ushnisha 佛頂, or cranial protuberance atop the head, symbolizes the expanded wisdom that the Buddha gained at his enlightenment 菩提; it serves as the Buddha’s diagnostic iconographic feature, as only Buddhas possess an ushnisha. The gilded surfaces not only make the sculpture appropriate for representing a deity but symbolize the light that, according to the sacred texts, or sutras 佛經, radiates from his body.
The Buddha sits in padmasana 蓮華坐, better-known in English as the lotus position, a cross-legged sitting position, or asana 坐, in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs, soles up, the right foot atop the left thigh and thus concealing from view the left shin and foot. The Buddha lowers his right hand in the varada-mudra 與願印, or gift-giving gesture, in which the open hand rests on the right knee, palm outward, signifying that the Buddha is preaching 說法 and is ready to answer prayers and give blessings. (A ritual hand gesture, a mudra—手印 or 印相—symbolizes a particular action, power, or attitude of a deity.) The left hand rests in his lap, palm upward, in the dhyana-mudra 禅定印, or meditation gesture. In fact, the combination of right hand in varada-mudra and left hand in dhyana-mudra indicates that this sculpture represents the Medicine Buddha, known in Sanskrit as Bhaisajyaguru and in Chinese as Yaoshifo 藥師佛.
Mahayana Buddhism 大乘佛教, the predominant form followed in traditional China, teaches that there are an infinite number of Buddhas, all of whom are deities. The Buddhas most widely worshipped in China, and thus those most frequently portrayed, are Shakyamuni 釈迦牟尼佛 (the Historical Buddha), Amitabha 阿彌陀佛 (the Buddha of Infinite Light), and Bhaisajyaguru 藥師佛 (the Medicine Buddha).
Like all Buddhas, the Medicine Buddha is an enlightened being who has entered nirvana 涅槃 and who shows unbiased compassion for all living beings. In particular, he protects all beings from illnesses—whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual—just as he also protects them from other dangers and obstacles; in addition, he helps them to eradicate the three poisons 三毒—attachment 貪, hatred 瞋, and ignorance 痴—which are the source of all passions, delusions, illnesses, and dangers.
The Medicine Buddha’s teachings are transmitted in the Bhaisajyaguru-vaiduryaprabharaja Sutra 藥師琉璃光如來本願功德經, best-known in English as the Medicine Buddha Sutra, which characterizes him as a bodhisattva who made twelve great vows that he pledged to keep upon entering nirvana 涅槃 and attaining Buddhahood. (A bodhisattva 菩薩 is a benevolent being who has attained enlightenment 菩提 but who has selflessly postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings—有情 or 眾生—in gaining enlightenment and thereby release from the samsara cycle 輪迴 of birth and rebirth.) On achieving Buddhahood, he became the Buddha of the eastern paradise of Vaiduryanirbhasa, or Paradise of Pure Lapis Lazuli 琉璃耶淨土. There, two bodhisattvas symbolizing the light of the sun and of the moon attend him: Suryaprabha 日光遍照菩薩, symbolizing the sun, and Candraprabha 月光遍照菩薩, emblemizing the moon. In temples dedicated to him, the Medicine Buddha sometimes is accompanied by twelve warriors (十二神將 or, alternatively, 十二神王), six at each side; holding spears and dressed in military armor, they symbolize the Medicine Buddha’s vows to help others.
According to the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the twelve great vows that Bhaisajyaguru made on attaining full enlightenment are
1—To illuminate countless realms through his radiance, enabling anyone to become a Buddha
2—To awaken the minds of sentient beings through his lapis lazuli light
3—To provide sentient beings with whatever material needs they require
4—To correct heretical views and inspire sentient beings to follow the Path of the Bodhisattva
5—To help beings follow the Moral Precepts, even if they previously failed in such attempts
6—To heal beings born with deformities, illnesses, or pain
7—To relieve the destitute and the sick
8—To assist women who wish to be reborn as men to achieve their desired rebirth
9—To heal mental afflictions and delusions
10—To free the oppressed from suffering
11—To relieve those who suffer from severe hunger and thirst
12—To clothe those who are destitute and suffering from cold and mosquito bites
According to traditional iconographic conventions, the Medicine Buddha, whether standing or seated, is portrayed with the left hand held at abdomen level, palm up, and with the right hand lowered, palm out, in the varada-mudra. In many representations, though absent here, he holds a single myrobalan fruit 訶梨勒 between the thumb and index finger of the lowered right hand. In the left hand the Medicine Buddha typically holds a small jar—sometimes shown as a small bowl—containing amrita 甘露, the nectar of the myrobalan fruit and considered the nectar of immortality. Given that the Medicine Buddha is associated with the Paradise of Pure Lapis Lazuli and that his symbolic color is blue, the medicine jar is often tinted blue in paintings and in painted sculptures. The slightly upturned fingers of the left hand suggest that this Buddha perhaps once held a small medicine jar.
This sculpture, which was created in northeastern China in the eighteenth century, reflects Tibetan influence. Although Tibetan imagery began to appear in the repertory of Chinese art already in the Yuan dynasty 元朝 (1279–1368), Tibetan influence on Chinese Buddhist art became far more pronounced in the Ming dynasty 明朝 (1368–1644), particularly during the Yongle 永樂年 (1403–1424) and Xuande 宣德 (1426–1435) eras, when the imperial court looked favorably upon Buddhism and made a concerted effort to build secular and religious alliances with Tibet, even inviting Tibetan monks to the capital, Beijing, to conduct religious services. In such early Ming sculptures of the Buddha, which typically are of gilt bronze, the outer the robes leave the Buddha’s right shoulder bare but cover the left shoulder and upper arm and then cross the chest and abdomen diagonally to cover the lower body and legs. Visible below the Buddha’s right nipple, the top edge of the undergarment encircles the lower part of the chest and then emerges from under the outer robe to cover the left forearm. This basic presentation of the Buddha would continue through the eighteenth century in Tibeto-Chinese-style sculptures.
Although some styles, particularly those descended from ancient Gandhara 犍陀羅, drape the Buddha in voluminous robes with copious folds, the style of this sculpture derives ultimately from that of Gupta 古普塔 India, as seen in late fifth-century sculptures from Sarnath 鹿野苑, in India’s northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh 北方邦. That very elegant style, with clinging drapery and with but few folds, reached Nepal in the seventh century and subsequently was transmitted to Tibet by the eleventh century and thence to China during the Yuan and Ming periods.
The present figure is the largest by far of the several known Qing-dynasty sculptures in this style, all of which are generally dated to the eighteenth century—variously assigned to the Kangxi 康熙 (1662–1723) and Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–1795) reigns—and are said to have been produced in the region of Jehol 熱河 in northeastern China, near Chengde in Hebei province 河北省承德市; they reflect the Qing court’s espousal of Tibetan Buddhism and its preference for Buddhist paintings and sculptures in Tibetan or Tibeto-Chinese styles. The sculptures closest in style and appearance to the present Buddha are the two representing the Buddha Shakyamuni in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (Gu849 and Gu912 / 故849 and 故912). Each measuring just 17.5 cm in height, they are much smaller than the present example; in fact, they are the smallest of the published sculptures in this style. In kindred style but representing the Buddha Amitayus 無量壽, the gilt-lacquered wood sculpture in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, measures 101.6 cm in height (B60 S16+). The two closely related sculptures representing the Buddha Shakyamuni that sold at Sotheby’s—one in New York and one in Hong Kong—are intermediate in size between the Palace Museum sculptures and both the present example and the Asian Art Museum sculpture; the Sotheby’s sculptures measure 62.2 cm (New York) and 66.0 cm (Hong Kong) in height respectively.
Even the earliest Chinese Buddhist sculptures in bronze were gilded, including those from the third and fourth centuries, such as the famous third-to-fourth-century Buddha in Meditation in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA (1943.53.80.A), and the renowned Buddha in Meditation, dated to 338, in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60 B1034). (The gold was applied to such pieces through so-called amalgam gilding, in which an amalgam of mercury and powered gold was applied to the sculpture’s otherwise finished surfaces after which the sculpture was heated, causing the mercury to evaporate and the gold to bond permanently to the bronze.) By contrast, virtually all early Buddhist sculptures in wood, stone, and clay originally were embellished with brightly colored mineral pigments; affixed with a binder, or glue, the colors include saffron, blues, and greens for the robes and scarves, gilding for the jewelry, pink or white for the flesh, and black (and sometimes blue) for the hair, the colors typically applied over a gesso ground. (White in color, gesso was applied to smooth the surface of the wood or stone and to render it chalk-white so that pigments appear to best advantage in terms of color and clarity.) The Buddhist sculptures in the Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang, Gansu province 甘肃省敦煌莫高窟, retain the greatest amount of original pigment of all early Chinese sculptures, but other Buddhist stone sculptures from the Tang 唐朝 and earlier periods often exhibit traces of original pigment, as well, such as three sculptures in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums: a Northern Qi- 北齊朝 or Sui- 隋朝 dynasty Seated Buddha in white marble (1943.53.42), a Sui Standing Guanyin in gray limestone (1943.53.43), and a Tang Kneeling Bodhisattva in gray limestone (1943.53.36). Though few pre-Song 宋朝前 Buddhist wooden sculptures survive, those from the Song 宋朝 (960–1279) and Yuan dynasties occasionally still retain their original pigments, or at least bear traces of them, such as the well-known examples in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (34-10) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (A.7-1935). By the Liao dynasty 遼朝 (907–1125), Chinese sculptors apparently had begun to gild selected bronze sculptures by coating them with lacquer mixed with powdered gold—termed lacquer gilt—a process far easier than amalgam gilding. Then, at least by early Ming times, in addition to enhancing wooden sculptures with pigments, they had begun to embellish selected wood sculptures with gilt lacquer or to coat them with reddish orange lacquer which they subsequently gilded, a practice that continued into the Qing dynasty 清朝 (1644–1912) as witnessed by this splendid sculpture. The facial details of such gilt-lacquered sculptures typically were tinted with pigments to add descriptive color, with red for the lips, white for the whites of the eyes, black for the eyebrows and pupils of the eyes, and either black or blue for the hair (the blue from powdered azurite or, in the rarest instances, from powdered lapis lazuli).
When under worship, this sculpture would have sat on a double-lotus base and likely would have been backed by either a halo or a mandorla 背光, the lotus-petal-shaped aureole 光環 suggesting light radiating from the deity’s body and thus signaling its divine status. (Symbolizing divinity, a halo is a circle, or disk, of light that appears behind the head of a deity; a mandorla is a full-body halo.) Like the present sculpture, neither of the closely related ones in the Palace Museum retains its original base.
Conservation treatment in 1994 revealed that this sculpture representing the Medicine Buddha includes a hollow cavity in the chest; by removing a previously sealed wooden plate from the back, the conservators discovered that cavity contained a number of small paper sutras and prayer scrolls, together with textile fragments, several small bronze seals(?), and assorted other consecratory items. Unfurling one of the small prayer scrolls, the conservators found the text, in red ink on paper, to have been inscribed in Tibetan. The items were returned to the cavity and the opening re-sealed with a wooden cover, which was subsequently gilded. Such dedicatory objects were deposited within the sculpture during its consecration ceremony in order to enliven the image and grant it religious efficacy. Religious in nature, such consecratory items seldom are dated and rarely include any information that would convey insight into a sculpture’s date, place, or other circumstances of manufacture.
Martin S. Rosenblatt, who served as Vice President and Senior Buyer for Gump’s between 1936 and 1957, acquired this sculpture for Gump’s in Kyoto, Japan, in 1957. Shortly after its arrival in San Francisco, this Medicine Buddha was accorded a prominent display space, replacing as the store’s emblem the Japanese bronze sculpture of the Buddha that the Gump family previously had given to San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden.
The departure of this compelling sculpture from Gump’s marks the close of an all-but-forgotten chapter in the history of fine-art marketing in the United States: the role played by major department stores in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. With the rise and rapid proliferation of specialized commercial art galleries and the seeming exponential growth of major auction houses during the second half of the twentieth century, the phenomenon disappeared in the U.S., that disappearance now poignantly symbolized by the closing of Gump’s and the offer of the iconic Buddha for sale. Even so, inspired by the success of department-store-based art galleries in the U.S., the phenomenon took root in Japan and lives on there today, with such high-end retailers as Mitsukoshi 三越 and Takashimaya 高島屋 still presenting art exhibitions and publishing scholarly catalogues, the catalogues often published in association with such prominent newspapers as the Asahi Shimbun 朝日新聞 and the Japan Economic Times / Nihon Keizai Shimbun 日本經濟新聞.
Major American cities most assuredly boasted important commercial art galleries in the early twentieth century—Duveen and Knoedler & Company come to mind for European art, just as C.T. Loo 盧芹齋 and Yamanaka & Co. 山中商會 come to mind for Asian art—but there were proportionally fewer commercial art galleries then than today. In addition, few galleries offered works other than Graeco-Roman antiquities and European old-master paintings, so department stores found a role as purveyors of a wide range of works of art, but particularly of modern art and non-Western art.
A short passage from a recent book by Sarah Miller Harris makes clear the important role that department stores played in the arts early in twentieth-century America. Speaking of the early years of Michael Josselson (1908–1978), who was born in Estonia and who would become a CIA agent during the Cold War, Harris notes that in 1928, when he was twenty, Josselson accepted a job in Berlin working for the American retailer Gimbels. She continues, “Gimbels was then the premier department store in America and the biggest buyer in Europe, and department stores were also auction houses, galleries, and sponsors of art exhibitions. Gimbels sponsored a tour of Cubists around the country, displayed Rembrandts in its old masters gallery, and put on two concerts daily. Along with its competitors, Gimbels was ‘more influential than all the museums combined’ in exposing Americans to fine art, according to the president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.”
In her 2017 article, Heather Holt noted that Wanamaker’s had been displaying fine art in both Philadelphia and New York for many years before opening the Belmaison Gallery within its New York store in 1919. She further states that between 1921 and 1925 Wanamaker’s exhibited in its Belmaison Gallery some of the most ambitious modernist art on view anywhere in New York, featuring the work of such now-famous masters as Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Sheeler. In fact, in its day the Belmaison Gallery showed everything from recent work by Picasso to modern decorative art, while the accompanying exhibition brochures documented the objects and set them in context—all of this prior to the opening of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in November 1929.
The Belmaison Gallery opened at a time of significant, ongoing interchange between department stores, museums, and art galleries. Department stores came into being in the United States in the era following the Civil War 美國內戰 (1861–1865) as an increasingly business-oriented and secular culture of individual self-fulfillment was taking root. Department stores and museums soon formed close alliances. Museums increasingly borrowed from department store display strategies and sought to boost the appearance of social relevance by placing their objects, expertise, and resources at stores’ disposal. In turn, department store owners took it upon themselves to become “missionaries” of aesthetics to those shoppers who never entered museums. Many of the grand retailers regularly presented free educational programs, art exhibitions, musical concerts, and displays intended both to edify the public and to cultivate consumer desire for their merchandise. These ongoing museum-department store partnerships would persist into the 1930s with, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s collaborations with stores like Marshall Field’s of Chicago.
Rather than beginning as a department store and then expanding to include an art gallery, Gump’s began in fields allied to the arts and subsequently broadened its purview to include a full range of household goods, luxury merchandise, and fine art, particularly Asian art. In 1861, Solomon Gump (1833–1908), who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1850 from Heidelberg, Germany, journeyed to California and joined his brother-in-law, David Hausmann, to work in a gold frame and mirror shop in San Francisco. (The shop apparently found a profitable business in supplying mirrors to the city’s numerous saloons, where gunfights and barroom brawls necessitated frequent replacements.) In 1864, Solomon bought the successful shop from Hausmann, establishing the Gump firm. His brother Gustave joined the business in 1871, at which point they named the firm “S. & G. Gump: Mirrors, Moldings, and Paintings.” Not long thereafter, the brothers Gump opened the first art gallery in San Francisco, importing paintings from Europe to fill the frames they sold. In 1890, after hearing Ernest F. Fenollosa (1853–1908), fresh from Japan and then on the American lecture circuit, Solomon Gump began buying fine pieces of Asian art for private collectors.
S. & G. Gump flourished and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the firm was passed on to Solomon’s fourth son, Abraham Livingston Gump (1869–1947). Known as “A.L.”, occasionally as “Abe”, and sometimes incorrectly as “Alfred”, Abraham took full control of the firm following his father’s death in 1908, a death hastened by the heartbreak resulting from the destruction of the store and all its merchandise by the fire that ensued in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. Thanks to loans from Ignatz Steinhart’s Anglo-California Bank and to the propitious sale of one of his painting to Dodie Valencia, wife of James C. Dumphy, for $17,000—likely the equivalent of between $450,000 and $500,000 today—A.L. was able to rebuild and restock the store.
Due to his childhood fondness for Chinese art—which he saw in the family shop and on visits to wealthy San Francisco-area homes in the company of his father—A.L. determined to enlarge the range of Asian art and furnishings for sale in the store. He had to fight hard because his father and brothers believed the public’s rampant anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese prejudices would doom the venture. Even so, the family agreed that one-third of the store’s temporary quarters on California Street would become the Oriental Room, to be filled with the finest porcelains, brocades, and embroideries that A.L. could find in nearby Chinatown. Soon their stock was supplemented by “treasures” acquired from American diplomats, servicemen, and others returning from service in Asia and from stops in Asia on ’round-the-world cruises.
But the transformational turn toward Asia resulted from the firm’s engagement of the plucky Ed Newell, whom A.L. sent to Asia as a buyer for the store. Newell bought Buddhist priests’ robes in Kyoto, teakwood furniture in Canton, and silk and satin in Shanghai. Next, he journeyed to Beijing, becoming one of the first the first Western buyers to venture into northern China. His purchases proved enormously popular with Gump’s wealthy clientele. With taste, desire, and a ready market for Asian art now documentably well-established, A.L. had Japanese carpenters build more elaborate and more authentic Oriental display galleries when the firm returned to Post Street in 1909 and moved into its new building designed by architect S.L. Hynian. One room, with sliding doors and rice-paper windows, simulated a Japanese home, while another replicated a Japanese temple. Kimono-clad Asian women served tea to customers. A.L. always followed the East Asian practice of keeping the highest-quality goods out of sight, to be brought out and privately shown only to the best clients. California’s new millionaires loved Gump’s and avidly bought the exotic rugs, porcelains, silks, and bronzes that A.L.’s buyers, working with Ed Newell and Martin S. Rosenblatt, brought back from China and Japan. In 1917, A.L. accompanied Newell on a five-month trip to China and Japan that added the most precious commodity of all to Gump’s treasure house: jade, the material for which the firm would become renowned in the twentieth century.
But A.L. was always more than a mere salesman. Visitors to San Francisco, from tourists to celebrities and statesmen, flocked to Gump’s because of A.L.’s legendary knowledge of Asia; in fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) visited, and famed actor John Drew Jr. (1853–1927), the matinee idol of his day, was a frequent visitor and reliable client. Known as the “apostle of Chinese culture”, A.L. often would dispatch learned consultants to help people decorate their homes with an Asian motif or to assist museums lacking in-house Asian expertise in adding Asian art to their collections. In fact, many of his acquisitions went to museums across the country, just as many others went to adorn Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, the 165-room mansion built by American businessman, politician, and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). And here too, as background, is the story of San Francisco itself, for Gump’s grew in tandem with the city and as the city became a crossroads between east and west, so did Gump’s become a primary destination for lovers of art from all over the world.
Famous for its range of luxury home furnishings and décor items, Gump’s by 1940 had become internationally renowned for its displays of Chinese art. A short, feature article on Gump’s published in the “Art” section of a 1940 issue of Time magazine states:
Everyone in San Francisco knows what Gump’s is. Gump’s is a discreet, three-floored store on Post Street, with a notable array of Oriental art, the best collection of jade in the U.S. On its second floor last week Gump’s put on a show drawn from its own rich stock, ‘Thirty-three Centuries of Chinese Art,’ which it claimed no single museum or collection in the world could entirely parallel.
Written in the 1930s and first published in 1940, San Francisco in the 1930s characterized Gump’s wholly as a gallery of Asian art, omitting any mention at all of other merchandise on offer in the store:
43. To collectors the world over, the name of S. G. GUMP AND COMPANY, 250 Post St, means jade, but the firm’s agents have scoured the world for more than jade. Show rooms are styled to conform with the rare objects they contain. Since Solomon and Gustave Gump founded the firm in 1865 [sic], it has grown into an institution whose buyers gather items for collectors throughout the Nation. In its show rooms are displayed modern china, pottery, glass, linens, silverware, and jewelry; silks, brocades, and velvets; Siamese and Cambodian sculpture; porcelain and cloisonné, rich-textured tapestries, bronze temple bells, hardwood screens ornamented with jade, and rugs from Chinese palaces acquired after the overthrow of the Manchu government. In the Jade Room all of the eight colors and 45 shades of the stone are represented, including the rarest, that most nearly resembling emerald; pink, so rare that only small pieces have been found; and spinach green, a dark tone flecked with black, used for decorative pieces. The collection of tomb jade, recovered from mounds in which mandarins were interred, includes pieces 2,000 years old. The Jade Room also contains figurines carved of ivory, crystal, rose quartz, white and pink coral, rhinoceros horn, and semiprecious stones.
Following the death of A.L. Gump in 1947, sons Robert and Richard furthered the family association with Asian art. Robert Livingston Gump (1903–1981) managed Gump’s and devoted much of his life to writing books on interior design in addition to publishing a monograph on Chinese rugs; he also authored You Are the Rose, You Are the Rock: An Eastern Logic, a 1970s favorite. Richard Benjamin Gump (1906–1989), for his part, established a reputation within San Francisco as a respected businessman, connoisseur, civic patron, and author (with books on both jade and good taste). In addition to serving as president of Gump’s until 1975, he was for many years a commissioner of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; today, the museum’s Richard B. Gump Society continues to honor his legacy.
The majestic, eighteenth-century Medicine Buddha thus stands as a telling symbol of Gump’s long and very serious involvement with Asian art over the past century and a half. Works acquired at Gump’s not only enhanced—and still enhance—wealthy homes throughout the nation, but, as collectors have passed their treasures on, many works have found their way into museum collections through gift and bequest and thus are on view in numerous public galleries. Indeed, works with the prized Gump’s provenance still appear in auctions today, including the important imperial spinach-green jade book set from the Qianlong period 乾隆年 (1736–1795) that sold in Christie’s 14-15 September 2017 New York auctions (lot 1025).
With its early start and a history spanning more than 150 years, Gump’s was San Francisco’s third oldest business in continuous operation, after Shreve & Co., founded in 1852, and Wells Fargo, also founded in 1852. The sale of this large, majestic, and very compelling Buddha not only emphatically signals the close of this storied firm but the final passing of American luxury department stores as purveyors of fine art. Gump’s legacy will live on, however, as museums, collectors, auction houses, and commercial galleries proudly list “Gump’s, San Francisco” as the provenance of works they display.
Christie's. Glories of Buddhist Art, Hong Kong, 29 May 2019