A newly discovered wooden sculpture of a Buddha that had religious objects sealed in its torso for 800 years sold for $14.3 million, setting a world record for any Japanese work of art, Christie’s auction house said.
The seated figure of Dainichi Nyorai, or the supreme Buddha, is attributed to Unkei, considered one of the two best sculptors of the early Kamakura period in the 1190s, when the most highly regarded Buddhist art was produced.
It was purchased at auction Tuesday by Mitsukoshi Ltd., one of Japan’s major department stores. Its presale estimate was $1.5 million to $2 million.
The Buddha, made of Cyprus wood, sits in a lotus position wearing princely attire, a crown and jewelry, and hair in a topknot. It is believed to have come from a temple during the Meiji period (1868-1911) when Shinto was adopted as the state religion of Japan, Christie’s said.
It was last known to be in the possession of a prominent Japanese family but its whereabouts afterward became unknown until it was sold to a dealer of Buddhist art in recent years.
“Part of the reason that it went through the roof is that it’s a very, very rare piece and it’s quite unusual for something of this significance to all of a sudden resurface,” said Adriana Proser, curator of traditional Asian art at the Asia Society.
The auction house declined to reveal the consignor’s identity.
The owner, believing the Buddha to be hollow, took the sculpture to the Tokyo National Museum, where it was X-rayed. Three dedicatory objects, representing Buddhist symbols and tied together with bronze wire, were revealed: a wood pagoda, a crystal pagoda and a crystal ball on a bronze stand.
Christie’s said it did not know if there were any plans to remove the objects, which have been sealed inside for 800 years and might provide historical information about the sculpture including inscriptions of the temple or donor, the sculptor’s identity and the date of dedication.
The previous record for a Japanese work of art was $1.76 million for a Rakuchu Rakugai screen, sold at Christie’s in 1990.
Katsura Yamaguchi, Christie’s international director of Japanese and Korean Art, said the sale “is a testament to the extreme importance and beauty of this supreme Buddha, and elevates Japanese art to a new record level.”
He said interest in the Buddha came from clients around the world.