Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology

Fri., Aug. 22nd, 14:00-16:30

Reflections on the Lama Wearing Trousers, Global Media and the Scientific Authentification of Buddhist Art

Bayer, Achim (Dongguk University, Seoul, KOR)

In September 2012, global news sources reported the discovery of an allegedly Tibetan meteorite-iron statue. Widely considered a witness of a mysterious pre-Buddhist civilization of Tibet, more than a thousand years old, the statue made a shooting-star career on the title pages of international media. In addition to the combined notions of remoteness and ancientness, the statue hinted at a mysterious technical superiority, with the tools to chisel metal of this hardness supposedly unknown in those archaic times.

While the material of the statue had been identified by a team of geologists and planetologists as being of meteoric origin, stemming from a meteor that went down in the Mongolian-Sibirian borderlands, the statue can stylistically be identified as a typical twentieth-century imitation of Tibetan art. From the perspective of our field, this media event is just as anachronistic as it is instructive. It reveals the ongoing force of the Myth of Tibet and ancient Asia, while the absence of experts from our field in public discourse reveals much about a lesser-known satellite to the Myth of Tibet: the Myth of Tibetology, or even of Asian Studies as a whole. At the same time, this event raises questions about the processes of authentification and falsification in the contemporary assessment of antique Asian art.


Questions of Authenticity
Buddhist art from Gandhara and Tibet

Luczanits, Christian;  Snellgrove, David L. (Senior Lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at SOAS)

It is well known in the scholarly community that today the market in Gandharan art is flooded with pieces of doubtful authenticity, but the degree to which this is the case is contested. On the other hand, there is little awareness so far, that similar issues can also be found with early Tibetan art. Although playing a major role in art historical work, issues of authenticity may be taught in an academic context and discussed at conferences, but for legal reasons are rarely published unless they have been in a museum collection for considerable time. Given the complexity of the issues involved in revealing such objects, this fact is deplorable and results in the frequent publication of problematic pieces.
In my panel contribution I will present a selected group of objects of doubtful authenticity challenging common suppositions concerning their upcoming, their artistic quality, and the reliability of technical analyses to prove the authenticity of an object. There are also objects the authenticity of which cannot be decided with the available possibilities of access and technical means. In addition, some examples of early Tibetan art raise the question of the limits of authenticity itself.


The Mystery of the Meteorite Statue Solved?

Engelhardt, Isrun (Icking, GER)

Achim Bayer has convincingly demonstrated that the statue cannot be more than one hundred years old. It also does not seem to be of Tibetan origin. Contrary to some speculations (based apparently on the presence of the swastika), it is highly unlikely that it was acquired by the Schäfer expedition in 1939. It is not listed in their meticulous records, in which each of the more than 2000 purchased objects and gifts (with the names of the donor) are listed with date, place, and price. Furthermore, the meteorite from which it was made was found more than 2000 kilometers from Lhasa, near the Siberian-Mongolia border in Tannu Tuva. Yet, despite the lack of any credible connection to Schäfer, blogs with titles like “Nazi-found Buddhist statue” or “Ancient statue the Nazis stole,” dominate the web, overshadowing the findings of serious research.

In an effort to advance the research of scholars such as Achim Bayer, this paper will argue that this statue depicts a historical person of the 20th century. This hypothesis will be supported by both textual and visual evidence. However, further questions remain, including where the statue was made and how it found its way to Europe. The paper will conclude with speculations on these questions. 


The Hongwu Southern Canon in the Beibei Library: Authentic or False?

Long, Darui (University of the West, Rosemead, CA, USA)

The Catalogue of Rare Chinese Books published by the Shanghai guji chubanshe in 1996 lists a number of extant editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon. One of them is the Hongwu nanzang (洪武南藏, Hongwu Southern Canon). The catalogue indicates that three libraries in China keep this rare edition of the Buddhist canon: The Sichuan Provincial Library (四川省圖書館) in Chengdu has an almost complete set, while the sets in the Beibei Library in Chongqing (重慶北碚) and the Hunan Provincial Library (湖南省圖書館) are incomplete.

The Catalogue of Rare Chinese Books was a project sponsored by the Chinese government in 1978, aimed at assessing the extant rare books in Chinese libraries after the destructions of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). However, due to limited facilities and conditions, librarians were not able to collect all “treasured books” in order to identify them. Additionally, as could be expected, the catalogue contained various mistakes.

The results of my research on the Hongwu Southern Canon were first published in The East Asian Library Journal, Princeton University, 2000. Afterwards, I visited Beibei Library twice, in 2005 and in 2010. My photos of the so-called Hongwu Southern Canon were then kindly evaluated by Mr. Peng Bangming, curator of the rare books section of the Sichuan Provincial Library, which houses an authentic print of the Hongwu Southern Canon. He immediately recognized and identified that the Beibei collection canon was printed from different woodblocks.

In 2011, I visited Tianjin Library and examined their collection of the Yongle Southern Canon. The photographs I took on that occasion clearly indicate that the Tianjin Library prints of Yongle Southern Canon are identical to the southern canon kept in the Beibei Library.

A colophon in the Beibei collection canon shows that the previous owner purchased the prints in the sixth year of Emperor Wanli, i.e. 1578, even though the woodblocks of the Hongwu Southern Canon were destroyed 172 years earlier, in 1406. After the destruction, Emperor Chengzu (r. 1403 – 1424) decided to engrave a new set of woodblocks in the same format as the one destroyed. This set was later called the Yongle Southern Canon because it was engraved in the Yongle period (1403 – 1424), in the “southern capital,” Nanjing. Even though prints from both block sets look similar, there are differences.

It seems that even experts at times confound these two distinct editions. I would like to present some evidence showing that they are demonstrably different and that, consequently, the Beibei collection houses a Yongle Southern Canon, and not a true Hongwu Southern Canon.


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