I didn’t expect much of this condo estate sale. A friend wanted some advice about sculpture included in the estate. Expecting some Hummel figurines, I was astounded to see three beautiful stone carvings. Not just beautiful, old. Old as in ANCIENT. Two Buddhas and a devotional figure from Gandhara. 1500 to 1700 years old.
Gandhara sculpture looks like no other art. Gandhara was a kingdom in the 3rd to 5th Centuries, in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. The faces are very stylized, like a 30’s movie star. It is a fusion of Greek and Asian art that happened when Alexander the Great took Greek art and crafts into Asia. The artists of Gandhara were the first to carve images of the Buddha. Prior to this, he was depicted as footprints with inscribed symbols.
I felt a protective responsibility for these three time travelers, and had so many questions! How did they wind up in a Parkrose condo? Can you sell these? Can you own them? How do put a price on cultural art that’s almost 2000 years old? Don’t they belong in a museum?
Looking for a way to evaluate the trio, I called the Asian Art Museums in Seattle and San Francisco. They were little help, though they did refer me to the National Institute of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association.
With the pressure of time and no money to pay for an appraisal, I called an Sue McGovern-Huffman an antiques dealer in Washington DC, for advice. Sue looked at photos and said they weren’t the quality her collectors were looking for.
That raised the question: How perfect does a 1700 year old religious stone object need to be?
“Try Bonham’s in San Francisco.” They have a specialty in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art.
Darise Weller, the sale organizer, told me that the owner was a Pan Am pilot, stationed in Iran and Afganistan in the 1960’s. Historic art as souvenier. They’d been in the USA for 50 years. Not a recent vandalism… The heavy stone sculptures had small zigzag hangers epoxied to the back side. Talk about hanging by a thread…
Also in the sale were Persian tiles, an embroidered jacket badge for the Imperial Country Club, Iranian jewelry. A large silver medallion caught my eye. Facing reliefs of the Shah and Richard Nixon proclaimed 100 years of friendship between Iran and the USA. I laughed out loud. That era seemed more distant and dated than the Buddha’s. What art survives as a living force and what becomes just memorabilia?
Weller decided against sending the sculptures to auction. Including them in the estate sale was easier and faster. And it changed my role from consultant to contender. I said “Put my name on the list.”
Sale day, I was there early and had a great conversation with two women about Buddhism while we waited patiently. Closer to opening time, the stairs became crowded and the energy changed. People were indignant that others were in front of them, that they had to wait at all. People cut into the line. The impatient man behind me, a dealer, had covered his entire left arm with SOLD stickers, eager to aquire more.
Doors open, I walk to the three carvings, pick up two and have my hand on the third as Mr Dealer reaches from behind me and slaps a sticker on it. Figuring I’m bigger and have three blunt objects, I say loudly, ”My hand is on it.” He responds with a loud curse and moves back.
Now I have a different problem. Flooded with adrenalin, I’ve suddenly got a bad case of the shakes and an incoming panic attack from the intensity in the crowded room. I can’t set the carvings down, cause the shark is still circling, and I can’t physically hold them for long. To have survived almost 2,000 years only to be dropped on my foot? A wide lunge to the cashier’s table, a credit card and a cardboard box, a quick exit and I’m good again.
They need metal mounts with stone bases: that’s a winter studio job. It’s so amazing to see how they’re carved and wonder if the dirt in the crevices is recent Portland dust or the dirt of the ages. For now it’s enough to be able to hold each one individually and continue to ask questions.
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