Dharmapala Thangka CentreTibetan Antiques

Development of the Tibetan antiques market

Art and antiquities collectors became aware of Tibetan antiquities only in the second half of the last century. Until then, the centuries-long isolation of Tibet had also ensured that these objects were known only to a few experts from the West, such as the Austrian Heinrich Harrer and the Italian Tibetologist Guiseppe Tucci.

The Chinese occupation of the snow country in the 1950s and the escape of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 led to a flow of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans primarily to India and Nepal in the years that followed.

As far as possible, the refugees often took religious objects from their household or monastery with them into their exile. None of them thought of selling these artifacts, nor had they ever considered these sacred objects to be of material value at that time. For them, they were simply an integral part of their Buddhist culture. Their primary concern was not to give up these possessions as a sign of their former personal Buddhist life.

Probably the Chinese invaders realized that there were precious treasures in their occupied territories. It is not for nothing that the Chinese word for central Tibet »Xizang« translated meant »Western Treasure House«.

Chinese looting of monasteries and private homes resulted in a rich booty. The Chinese invasion in the monasteries and private homes resulted in stealing of properties. The precious sacred art objects - the cultural wealth of Tibet - were burned, melted down, smashed and the valuable objects was later taken to China. There they either ended up in state art collections or were smuggled out of the country on the international art market.

Thangkas were hardly regarded as objects of value by the Chinese and were destroyed as symbols of »Old Tibet», or at best paid less attention to. The same was true for objects of daily use.

The US American art collector John Ford was one of the first to study Tibetan sacred art. In 1963, Ford made his first visit to India. He recalled going to a gallery of Indian antiques in New Delhi, full of Hindu and Mughal miniatures and decorative arts. He asked the antique dealer if he also had any old Tibetan objects in his inventory and he directed him to an upstairs storeroom where there were more than a hundred antique thangkas laid out in piles on the floor.

Ford says, »I chose the ten most beautiful to my eyes, brought them down to the owner, and paid about $1200 for the group.« As he would later realize, these extraordinary examples of Tibetan thangkas ranged from the 12th to the 17th century and formed the foundation of his Tibetan collection of hundreds of paintings, book covers, and sculptures.

Growth continued to increase, leading to an unprecedented top price of nearly US$ 50 million [including auction house premium] in Hong Kong on Oct. 26, 2014, for a 14th century embroidered thangka measuring 132 x 84 in. | 335 x 213 cm.

It is a double-edged issue with this commercialization. Many Tibet friends criticize that this is a development that cannot be reconciled with the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. Sacred objects may not be traded. On the other hand, the Western interest in these artifacts also leads to a preservation of Tibetan culture.

Numerous museums around the world now have major collections of Tibetan sacred art in their holdings. This would not have been possible without generous donations, loans and bequests from wealthy collectors.

Antiques can never be increased. However, interest in these objects continues unabated. Museums sell their holdings only in rare exceptional cases, and collectors part with their treasures, which they have collected for years, just as rarely.

This situation almost inevitably leads to two extremely deplorable developments: Forgeries and thefts. Especially in China, workshops are working on the production of antiquities of all specialties, sometimes in a quality that is difficult or impossible to detect even by experts.

As far as Tibet is concerned, the focus of the counterfeiters is on bronze statues produced with a manufacturing technique that causes artificial aging.. These statues are difficult to recognize as »new«. If style, colors and iconography are correct only an elaborate metal analysis can give security.

Thangkas, on the other hand, are more difficult to fake because old canvases, aged colors, breaks, and other features of old scroll paintings are much more difficult to produce. More about Thangka Fakes ...

Thefts from monasteries are unfortunately still common. Thisa applies especially to little secured monasteries in remote regions of Nepal and India. A very interesting documentary was produced on this subject by the Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera [The Great Plunder]

Unfortunately, it also happens again and again that even residents of the monasteries steal and sell the treasures of their own monastery.