It's a nice little urna

Collect to invest: John Windsor finds Buddhist art enlightening
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The Independent Online
The Chinese are coming. The explosion of wealth in newly liberalised mainland China has already created 55 billionaires, and this month's second International Asian Art Fair in New York is expected to be a blockbuster.

How long before we spot raffish, over-the-collar "Chinese" haircuts - as close-cropped, Westernised Hong Kong auctioneers have dubbed the mainland fashion - at auctions of Chinese art in London? Unable to wait, I visited the London oriental art gallery of John Eskenazi and begged him: "Teach me to love the Buddha."

After all, those impassive faces of gilt-bronze seated oriental Buddhas with all-seeing urnas in their forehead are not easy on the Western eye. Mr Eskenazi provided the antidote. He threw open what looked like a built- in wardrobe.

Spotlights clicked on inside, illuminating a resplendent, 3ft-high early 15th century Tibetan Vajradhara, gilded bringer of enlightenment. "You can feel the beatitude," he said. Indeed, I could. In the market for Buddhist art, love and money, the spiritual and the material, are interlinked.

The more spiritual the appearance, the more valuable. The first thing that dealers and auctioneers look at - even before age and condition - is the Buddha's face. Then the hands. Serenity and compassion sell. Ugliness does not. Mr Eskenazi says: "All the best pieces have an inner tension, a divine quality. They make contact with one's inner self."

I saw more Tibetan than Chinese Buddhas in the top London galleries. Dealers, many of them passionate connoisseurs who are really collectors in disguise, seem to prefer the Tibetans' more forceful and complex spiritual values to the restrained simplicity of the Chinese.

But new Chinese collectors - whose ancestors employed the finest Tibetan and Nepalese craftsmen - will nevertheless want to buy Chinese Buddhas first. In London at present both are undervalued - good news for Brits who cannot afford pounds 120,000 for a big 15th century figure.

At Christie's South Kensington, six to seven-inch high gilt-bronze Buddhas from the 11th to the 18th centuries, still with a respectable amount of gilt on them, can be had for pounds 400-pounds 500. Two years ago, they were fetching only pounds 200-pounds 300. You might still get a 16th century bronze Buddha for as little as pounds 200 - a ludicrously low price for an object individually modelled in clay then cast by the lost-wax process.

A wax model with a clay core was encased in a clay jacket and baked, so that the wax ran out, leaving a cavity to be filled with molten bronze. A few Chinese mainlanders are already attending London auctions in person but hardly any Tibetans can afford to. The bidding is as yet dominated by dealers, notably the Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese.

South Ken's specialist, Nader Rasti, says: "Prices have got a long way to go." Especially if British private buyers step in. Beginners with limited experience could specialise in specific, affordable types of Buddha, such as those of the Qianlong (pronounced "chen-lung") reign (AD1736-1795) during the Qing ("ching") dynasty.

Some 10 per cent of the edition of 21,000 made then is thought to have survived. They are quite charming, six to seven inches high, with reign marks including date in Chinese characters on their base. Expect to pay from pounds 200 for the battered to pounds 1,200 for fine specimens.

Or, for pounds 1,000-pounds 2,000, both at auction or in galleries, go for bronze Buddhas of the same size dating from two Ming dynasty reigns - Yongle (AD1403-1424) and Xuande (AD1426-1435) - during which the standard of casting reached a peak. Gilt-bronze versions will cost you pounds 2,000-pounds 5,000 - but the higher price carries more sustainable value.

For the past 15 years it has been pottery, not bronze, that has caught the attention of Eastern and Western collectors, ever since Chinese treasure hunters began looting antique pottery from graves, smuggling it out of Hong Kong.

They boosted demand for newly excavated wares such as those magnificent Tang horses (AD618-906) - but flooded the market. Only in the past three years, with the establishment in mainland China of over 100 state-led auction houses, has there been a shift in taste - towards painting and calligraphy.

The auction of excavated goods is forbidden. And at those auctions there is scarcely a bronze Buddha to be seen. Good news or bad? In fact, almost all China's surviving bronze Buddhas, of which infinitely fewer were made than pottery wares, are in the West - beyond the reach of any clampdown on exports from Hong Kong after the June hand-back.

Remaining above ground, those that were not sold off in the late 19th century were lost in wars, destroyed or stolen by the Japanese invaders of 1939 or discarded during the Cultural Revolution of 1968-78, when it was illegal to own art. No Buddhas in China means no Buddha market there.

Do the Chinese really want them? Is not modern Chinese materialism more suited to Confucius than Buddha? I got the most bullish answer from the London dealer Michael Goedhuis. "The point is Chinese Buddhas are Chinese. That is why they are going to want them. Ever since the fifth and fourth centuries BC, collecting has been a cultural passion in China, with bronze and jade the two pillars of the culture.

"When the new rich Chinese have bought their big houses and cars they will revert to their old pattern, bear down upon the West and suck back all their cultural goods. A lot of people here are not aware how fast people in China are making money. All Chinese art is going to be very expensive."

All that is lacking is the liberal granting by the Chinese authorities of foreign tourist visas - decreed in principle last November. Chinese wanting to travel abroad endure interminable interviews. Few visas are granted. Yes, the Chinese are coming. But at the moment some of them are having a little difficulty.

Under the hammer: what's up for auction next week

London: Can the Swedish etcher Anders Zorn's volatile women be trusted with a little flutter? His alluring nudes are back in Sotheby's print sale in London, Thursday (10.30am). Cubism with a Czech accent: Picassoesque paintings by avant-garde artists who formed the Group of Plastic Artists in Prague in 1911 are in Sotheby's mid-season Impressionist and modern sale, Wednesday (10.30am). In the same sale: mass-produced Picasso ceramics. Sotheby's contemporary art: Thursday (2.30pm). More Picasso crocks at Christie's South Kensington Impressionist and modern sale, Monday (2pm). Three musical instrument sales this week, the biggest at Sotheby's, Tuesday (10.30am), with 450 instruments. Others at Christie's South Kensington, Wednesday (10.30am) and Bonhams, Wednesday (3pm).

Countrywide: Altrincham: Sale by tender of small lots of miscellaneous toys, Tuesday, at Blue Chip Park. Elliot Partnership (0161-926 9884). Darlaston, Walsall: High quality British-made footwear Thursday, at Lynedene Manor Industrial Estate. Capital Estates (0121-526 6917). Taunton: Toys, militaria, coins, stamps, photographs, toys, Tuesday. Lawrence Fine Art, Magdalene Street (01823 330567). Manchester: Lesney Matchbox toys Wednesday. Capes Dunn, 38 Charles Street (0161-273 1911).

Further information about auctions and fairs: Antiques Trade Gazette, and Government Auction News (fax information line 0336-423488). JW

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