world are among the most highly coveted collectible antiques today
Imaginative brilliance, power and pathos have perhaps never been more stunningly rendered in metal than when they have been given the language of bronze to articulate the narratives they encapsulate. And when a final layer of gold-leaf gilding has been added to them, it has added a layer of magnificence – like it has to several other media such as wood and brass – to create collectible masterpieces. From the magnificent gilt-bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas in South Asia to decorative gilt-bronze mounts and bronzes d’ameublement like wall-lights, andirons and clocks in Europe, gilt-bronzes embody some of the richest vessels of cultural heritage and are among the most sought-after collectible antiques in the world.
While gilt-bronze was already in use in 17th century Italy, it was France, under Louis XIV’s flamboyant reign, that really spread the use of gilt-bronze across Europe. Owing to the king’s personal cabinetmaker, Andre Charles Boulle’s talents as a bronze-maker and illustrator, gilt-bronze found its way into European furniture – adorned with elaborate designs of mythology, flora and fauna. Under Louis XV, the use of gilt-bronze continued to grow, as did the stylistic variations in its application. Foliage, acanthus leaves, shells and rockeries abounded, followed by a more minimalistic sensibility with the ascension of Louis XVI to the throne. Inspired largely by nature, many gilt-bronzes during his reign were especially designed for Marie-Antoinette, with ribbons, draperies and garlands as frequent motifs.
When it comes to South Asia, the Buddha in his many iterations forms an artistic narrative of his own, and anthropomorphic images of him cast in gilt-bronze are among the highest-selling antiques in the world. While the best, most reputed auction houses will attest to a vast repertoire of Chinese gilt-bronze Buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors and teachers, there are wide variations in value owing to several factors. “Like any other segment of the Asian market, there is a very wide price range based on quality and rarity,” says Christie’s New York specialist Tristan Bruck, adding that certain time periods are particularly attractive to the market today. Works tracing their origins to the early Ming dynasty, for instance, from the reign of the Yongle and Xuande Emperors, gilt-bronzes of 15th-century Tibet, Licchavi and Malla period Nepalese sculptures and early Qing dynasty works are all priced fairly high. An exceptionally rare gilt-bronze figure of Chintamanichakra Avalokiteshvara from the period of Yongle, Ming dynasty, was recently sold at an auction by Sotheby’s for $35,86,247 and a magnificent gilt-bronze figure of Shyama Tara from the Kangxi period for $4,92,476.
One of the most important things that modern collectors should keep in mind as they survey the market for gilt-bronzes is that different periods are always rising and falling in popularity but quality never loses its relevance – an exemplary piece from any time period will hold its value. A number of elements come together to make for truly great quality in a gilt-bronze and the most notable among them are the stylistic modelling of the object or figure, the rarity of the subject and the skill of the artist. “At the end of the day, people are buying [gilt-bronze sculptures] because they are beautiful and well made,” Bruck notes. When considering your price point, he adds, always buy the highest quality work you can afford.