A Chinese Stone Buddhist Stele - Discovery, Restoration & Provenance

A Chinese Stone Buddhist Stele Examined through Eras of Discovery, Restoration, and Provenance


Chinese Buddhist Stone Stele | Weisbrod Collection


This Stele depicts a central Buddha seated cross-legged, wearing a striped long-sleeved robe falling over his entire body, with feet exposed, arms held up, with crossed hands forming a mudra against his chest, seated in a "theatrical" grotto including a tied back curtain and geometric sectional frame, each section enclosing a floret. (Historical comparative examples are discussed here).

A Boddhidatva stands behind a lion whose nose touches the knee of Buddha, on each side. Below there are two curly maned seated lions flanking a Censer on the base. Above the central grotto on each side, is a flying Apsara. Surmounting the stele are two intertwined boldly sculpted dragons writhing around a small simply peaked grotto enclosing another similarly robed, seated, cross-legged Buddha.

Stele of this type is very rare. Buddhist sites have been heavily guarded with surveillance for decades.

Occasionally objects we acquire were originally discovered in a very different era. Many clues are evident, for instance, in this Rare Stone Buddhist Stele. Old natural patination and the obsolete style of simple restoration are characteristic of Buddhist Stone Carvings from old Western Collections, removed from sites, pre People's Republic of China (1949).

From a quick examination, one can easily see the Stele is obviously very broken, into at least 8 - 9 large pieces. 

Sculptures removed from important sites in the modern Chinese Era, from the early 1980s, were already known to be of some commercial value. They were cherished, not for their historic, artistic, or religious value, but for the new market value, which although still quite low in China, could be equal to several months' wages. Using modern tools the extractors were more careful and thoughtful in the removal of the carvings, as the profit would be theirs, resulting in more interest to extract the Sculpture in good condition, especially smaller carvings of manageable sizes, such as this Stele. 

Pre World War II, such sculptures as this Stele, were broken either in the method of chopping the carving from a cave or tomb wall, or carelessly handling the heavy stone, dropping it, or breaking the stone so to be transported easily, similar to how large Tang Pottery figures were handled, broken and thrown in carts. Very large stone carvings were systematically cut into sections making removal from the site and shipping easier, see the Metropolitan Museum large Stele.

Barely enough pay to eat, along with primitive tools, resulted in serious damage to stones of all sizes. Evidence the stone Buddhist Sculptures displayed in many museums, worldwide, acquired from very old collections, or directly from China in the 1920s, 1930s, prior to World War II. 

Also, the somewhat primitive "honest" repair - restoration here attests to an earlier era of removal from the initial site, and subsequent shipment to outside (China) Western destinations. 

Other Buddhist Sculptures with similar carving, restorations, and patina include the famous large Wall Carvings, from Longmen Grottos, Luoyang, Henan Province, one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the mate in The Nelson Adkins Museum, Kansas City. (See the photos in our related post). Carved in a similar technique, from similar stone, they have a similar patina, including earth encrustation adhering to the stone, seemingly as blotches, or patches. The line carving of the fronds is very similar to the striped robes on the figures of our Stele.

Many carvings in the Northern Wei caves of the Longmen Grottos are of similar design, having similar groupings of the iconographic details. 

The back of the huge Buddhist Stele in The Metropolitan Museum, New York, originally from Yungang, Datong, China, dated 489-495, has a very similarly styled framed niche, although carved from sandstone, typical of Yungang Caves. 

The large Limestone Seated Buddha Triad, Northern Wei, Early 6th Century from the Worcester Art Musem, Worcester, Massachusetts, wears similarly striped robes.

Another Stele of similar size, design, and carving is in the Xian Museum, Xian, Shaanxi Province China, from the early 6th Century. 

Two Gandharan Stele, one from the 1st Century, now in the Berlin Museum, and the other one from the 2nd-3rd Century are obvious inspirations for this Northern Wei Chinese Buddhist Stele.

One much smaller Stele, 33 cm. high, with no decipherable inscription, or large intertwined dragons, is a very good market reference. It sold many years ago, for U.S.$116,500 in a much lower market for Buddhist Sculpture. 

A much smaller limestone Votive Stele, 31 cm. high, of a similar seated Buddha, of the Northern We Dynasty, formerly in the Sakamoto Collection, sold recently at Sotheby's, Hong Kong, lot 149, July 12, 2020, for HKD 2,000,000.

Our Stele, attached, displays many similarities in design to some of the above-mentioned references. The style of the actual carving, and patina, including the earth encrustation and adhesions, are very similar to the above mentioned Longmen Wall Panels. 

The inscription although not completely deciphered, has been authenticated by an expert in early calligraphy, retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, now a consultant to Museums and Auctions in Beijing. Especially learned in early calligraphy, including inscriptions in stone, he verifies the inscription as typically Northern Wei Dynasty, and dated fourth year of Zhengshi, of the Northern Wei Dynasty, corresponding to 507.