The sudden availability of great art from a remote civilisation reflects the political and human tragedy of Tibet since the Chinese invasion in 1950. The country was the great spiritual powerhouse of Asia, with 6,500 monasteries spread around its mountainous terrain - monks made up a quarter of the population. By 1975 the Chinese had destroyed all but five of the monasteries; the artworks that survived were effectively homeless. The smugglers who are selling them in the West are often devout Buddhists: some, at least, of the proceeds are said to be going back to rebuild monasteries and schools.
Tibetan treasures - many of which, it can be assumed, only recently left their mountain retreats - will be on view at two important dealers' exhibitions in London: "Images of Faith", which began last week at John Eskenazi's new gallery in Bond Street, and "Mirror of the Mind: Art of Vajrayana Buddhism", which opens on 9 June at Spinks in King Street, St James's. Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism was practised over a wide area, including northern India, Nepal and China; the Buddhist art of the whole region is referred to as "Tibetan". The old monasteries' treasures were gathered from all over this region.
John Eskenazi has been travelling around Buddhist centres across Asia, including Tibet, since the 1960s, seeking both spiritual inspiration and a historical understanding of the artworks in which he deals. He inherited a gallery in Milan, founded by his great-uncle at the turn of the century, but moved the centre of his operations from Milan to London last year.
Spinks has recently strengthened its Tibetan department by recruiting Gennady Leonov, former curator of Tibetan art at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which has one of the greatest collections in this field. He and Spinks's resident expert, Deborah Ashencaen, have compiled and catalogued the present exhibition. Both firms are presenting the very best pieces they could find - and their prices are substantial. Spinks's run up to $700,000 (pounds 440,000) for an 11th-century copper alloy statue 5ft high.
For more than 1,000 years the monasteries of Tibet served as repositories of applied art - carvings, bronzes, paintings, books and textiles. Donations to temples were one way for worshippers to gain spiritual merit and improve their karma, and a huge amount of material was created. It was not regarded as "art" but as part of everyday life; figurines and thankas, painted cloth hangings, served as aids to the contemplation of abstract truths; textiles wrapped books, thrones or even pillars. The monks did not treat these items with any particular respect: they were functional and easily replaceable. The medieval textiles that reached the West from Tibet in the 1980s were black when they arrived here.
Ninety per cent of the monasteries' treasures are thought to have been destroyed by the Chinese since the 1950 invasion. This systematic destruction seems particularly fantastic considering many monasteries were located in wild mountain areas, several days' walk from the nearest road.
Some of the art now emerging was hidden by the monks after they learnt that the Chinese were on their way. Other material was removed and stored by Chinese officials, then given back to the monks when monasteries began to be restored as tourist attractions. Tibet was re-opened to Western visitors in 1986.
The first trickle of Tibetan treasures, mostly easily portable gilt bronze or copper figurines, began to reach Western markets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, brought home by hippie travellers. In 1986 the trickle swelled into a stream. Western scholars had arrived in Tibet who were capable of distinguishing the old from the new, the great from the mediocre. At the same time, travel and transport became much easier.
Both Eskenazi and Spinks have fragments of elaborate 15th-century sculptural decoration in gilt copper, studded with semi-precious stones, which formerly encased stupas - monumental structures containing holy relics - at the Densatil temple complex, a day's walk through the mountains from Tibet's capital, Lhasa. Densatil, founded in 1198, was famous all over the country for its spiritual heritage; it had 18 large stupas coated with precious metal and decorated with statues inlaid with precious stones. The site had been photographed in detail by an Italian expedition to Tibet in 1948. John Eskenazi found his way there recently: "All that was left was a hut and a scene of devastation," he said.
The two pieces at Eskenazi, both about 2ft high, represent respectively Nagaraja, the king of the serpents, presenting gifts to the Buddha (pounds 180,000), and Kubera, the supreme distributor of wealth, holding a mongoose from whose mouth issues a stream of precious stones (pounds 160,000). Spinks has a smaller plaque with four dancing goddesses in high relief priced at $68,000 (pounds 42,000).
The art in both exhibitions follows the complex iconography of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, in which images of sexual union and death are used as analogies for spiritual unity and completion. The images are not idols in the Western sense. They are visual explanations of philosophic truths - such as Spinks's gilt bronze of the four-faced, 12-armed Samvara engaged in the sexual act with his consort Vajravarahi (pounds 38,000).
Samvara embodies Compassion and is embracing Wisdom. Every one of his 12 hands contains an attribute of symbolic significance: an elephant hide representing the conquest of our personal elephant of ignorance; an axe symbolising the severing of illusion; a blood-filled skull bowl symbolising the transmutation of the life blood of evil into the elixir of immortality. In a reference to the region's older religion, Samvara and Vajravarahi are trampling two Hindu gods underfoot. An initiate would recognise every reference and use the image as an aid to contemplation.
John Eskenazi presumes the bottom half of a woven thanka in his exhibition was cut in two by the Chinese, to destroy its role as an image of faith. It dates from the early 15th century and was probably one of the religious objects commissioned by the Chinese Emperor Yongle (1403-1424) for the fifth Karmapa - a reincarnated Tibetan lama - in gratitude for his spiritual teaching. The full thanka must again have depicted two deities, Compassion and Wisdom, in sexual embrace against a background of flames. Eskenazi has the bottom half with their legs and a border of lively dancers, or "yoginis", and thunderbolts (pounds 200,000).
Another of the great rarities of his show is the rug in the shape of a tiger pelt woven in north-western China in the 17th or 18th century (pounds 140,000). Eskenazi describes it as "the earliest and most striking tiger carpet known". Real tiger skins and carpets woven with tiger images were used widely in the East as mats or seat covers for dignitaries. For Buddhists, tigers are associated with taming the wildness of the ego-centred mind through ritual practices. The wear at the centre of this rug suggests it was draped over a lama's throne.
It is competition between American museums, who are taking advantage of the current opportunities to build Tibetan collections, that has driven up prices. The Metropolitan in New York and the Cleveland in Ohio are keen players. There are also enthusiastic private collectors in America, Europe and Asia, especially Singapore and Taiwan.
The Tibetans themselves appear to feel no discomfort over religious objects becoming collectors' items. For a monk, a new painting or figure is as good an aid to contemplation as an old one; they set no store by antiquity. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan government in exile, wrote an introduction to the 1990 Royal Academy catalogue of "The Sacred Art of Tibet" exhibition which gave the trade his blessing: "We have treasured [these works of art] for centuries in Tibet," he wrote "and are deeply moved that they are beginning to be treasured by the open- minded people of the whole world." !Reuse content