Spiritual objects

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:00am

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, Buddhist and Taoist temples in Beijing were packed with worshippers. Men and women, young and old jostled in the incense-choked halls, and many knelt wherever they could find a space. Now, the temples are empty again except for the tourists and a few elderly devotees.

According to a survey of Buddhist practice among city dwellers, some 80 per cent say they worship and meditate at home, going to temples only on special occasions. Central to home devotion is a reverentially chosen and blessed Buddha statue. With growing affluence, quality Buddhist artwork has become sought after as a bridge between man and the divine.

Last autumn, for the first time, two major Beijing auction houses held special auctions of Buddhist art.

Chen Lianyong, a manager at China Guardian Auctions, said most statues on the market were from the Ming and Qing period, of which the most highly prized were those made by the imperial workshops. Many were commissioned by the emperors to reward their Tibetan and Mongolian vassals.

Religious art suffered more than any other form of traditional culture during the Cultural Revolution, when countless religious sculptures were destroyed by the Red Guards to rid China of superstition. As a result, hardly any sizeable Buddhist statues come on to the market, and the average height is about 20cm. The provenance of these objects is also difficult to document.

Mr Chen said that because artwork dated before 1795 could not be exported, prices for Ming statues were still generally lower in China than on the international market, but the gap was narrowing as mainland buyers, fired by a new passion for the religious art, bid ever higher.

For example, three gilded Buddhist statues once held by a collector in France were sold in the autumn auction for more than 1.3 million yuan, one-third higher than the pre-auction estimates.

Collecting religious artwork combines material consumption and spiritual fulfilment. Dealers with a sharp eye for value, and a willingness to take risks, are amply rewarded.

Mr Chen recounted how one Qing statue dating to the Qianlong period (1736-1795) which was sold in a Boston gallery for US$20,000, was later auctioned in Hong Kong for $1.08 million. (US$138,000). In global capitalism, the sacred and the profane appear to be living happily together.

But for true Buddhists, material goods are transient, and the windfall only proves the point. They seek enlightenment in a slower and more thoughtful way of living amid the frenzy.