Friday, January 21, 2011

Fake Spotting

I saw something that was both entertaining and instructive but also dismaying on eBay the other day. It was the above image offered for sale by one of those eBay companies that shall remain nameless.

Actually, this same image is offered for sale more than once on eBay, which ought to be enough to tell even people who may be borderline clueless in the field, that it isn’t all that rare or precious.  The price of the golden one, described as 24 carat gold (of course we know they mean gold plated even without them saying so, right?) ranges between $4,999.99 and $5,999.99 US.  A “purple bronze” version of it is going for $2,499.00 by one seller, and $1,999.99 by another (both explicitly described as "old").

One seller, who claims only that the piece is authentic and never directly states that it is old or otherwise distinguished, adds this helpful paragraph at the end, although if you read it for what it says, it does tell you that the piece ought to be the opposite of non-ancient, and therefore ancient:

“Whether you buy your antiquities from us or other eBay sellers we strongly recommend that you identify all your purchases by professional expert from your nearest reputable recognized testing laboratory for authentication and peace of mind. Unfortunately the ancient art market is cursed with a high proportion of fakes. Fakes often look better than real antiquities to the inexperienced eye - they are often intact, invariably un-restored and their colors are more vivid. Our buyers can count on a 100% money back guarantee if a recognized testing laboratory judges their purchase to be non-ancient. Seek the same re-assurance from all those who sell to you.”

Disingenuous is the word that comes to mind. Worthy of a true grifter. Look again at that sentence and reflect on its meaning a time or two, “Fakes often look better than real antiquities to the inexperienced eye - they are often intact, invariably un-restored and their colors are more vivid.”

I recognized the original for this image right away, because I once was so interested to get my own reading of its inscription that I wrote to the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was not pleased to find out how much it would cost me to get these photographs, but decided to tolerate the lightening of my wallet for the sake of science. Without written agreement I can’t pass on to you the three photographs of the inscription that forms a semi-circle on the rounded back part of the base, but I can give you photos of the image itself (which anyway are available on the web; see below). I can also give you my own transcription and interpretation of the inscription. I have made it much more precise than necessary, in order to at least show that the inscription, while done with exceptionally beautiful calligraphic style, neglects rules about the use of the tseg dot before the she (shad) punctuation marks.  (Although written in a single line, I have put it in a verse format.)

@@@ ||    || na.mô.'||||||


'gro.drug.sdug.[b]sngal.zad.par.shog.|| ; ||

                   - - -

༄༅༅།།  །།ན་མྰོ་འགྷུ་ཪུ་༎ངན་ལམ་བན་ཆུང་བདག་གིས་ནི་༎བླ་མ་རིན་ཆེན་སྐུ་བཞེངས་པ་ཡི་༎བསོད་ནམས་འདི་ཡི་བྱིན་བཪླབས་ཀྱིས་༎འགྲོ་དྲུག་སྡུག་སྔལ་ཟད་པཪ་ཤོག་། ༑ །*
 (*Sorry, but that's what my unicode looks like here, which is why I don’t normally use it. Perhaps it will look ok if you cut and paste it into an ordinary Word file?)

Homage to the Lama!

Through the blessings of the merit resulting
from the erecting of this image of the precious Lama
by myself Nganlam Banchung,
may the sufferings of the six gatis* come to an end.

(*The six gatis are the favorable rebirths as gods, asuras and humans plus the unfavorable rebirths as animals, pretas and denizens of hell.)

All my effort, time and money might be regarded as wasted since the inscription had already been transcribed very accurately and translated in a way that, in meaning, closely enough matches my own (in Weldon and Singer).

The Cleveland piece you see here is surely one of the most wonderful examples of early Tibetan sculptural portraiture, but in my opinion there isn’t sufficient evidence from the inscription or the iconography to know who the depicted person would be.  I know that “bla ma rin chen” is being read quite hopefully to refer to Rinchen Pal, but really, it just means ‘precious Lama’ and doesn’t contain any definite clue to the identity of the Lama. I searched everywhere for an identity for Nganlam Banchung, but nothing even remotely conclusive comes up. Nganlam is a clan name, associated with a particular area of Central Tibet, and Banchung just means ‘small monk [bande],’ a modest way of speaking about oneself. Much more often than not it proves impossible to turn up further information about patrons named in inscriptions, although the human subjects of painted and sculptured portraits are almost always famous enough to be identified if they are named.

The Cleveland image bears a very close identity to a small image in the Musée Guimet (MA 6032) that was published in a catalog by Giles Beguin in 1994 (plate 42), which I don’t have available and can’t look into further right now. The only information I have on it is in an article by Heather Stoddard, but although using the words “with little doubt” she doesn’t mention the basis for her identification of it as Jigten Gonpo. There is no hint whether there might be an inscription or not.

The verifiable Jigten Gonpo paintings (like the one with the Rubin writeup, or like the one in Amy Heller's articledon’t display the same mudras as these two just-mentioned images from Cleveland and Paris.

So, really, I have no compelling reason to believe that either the Cleveland or the Paris images ought to be Jigten Gonpo.

As far as I know the intuition, expressed in Singer and Weldon, that it might be Pagmodrupa could be correct...  his head tends toward the shape we see here, but then so might Lama Zhang's. And we could further argue that it might be Gampopa, or any number of other early Kagyu teachers.

There is a verse passage at the beginning of Phagmodrupa's classic biography in which he refers to his own teacher Gampopa with the epithet of ‘precious Lama’ (bla-ma rin-chen). You find it yet again, as part of a string of epithets, in one of the verses of praise he wrote to his teacher Gampopa (the source is here):

mtshan ldan bla ma rin chen ’gro ba’i mgon | |
gdul bya’i don du ri bo shan tir byon | |
lung dang rtogs pa’i chos kyis gzhan don gyi | |
b[s]tan pa’i rgyal mtshan khyod la phyag + | |

        Homage to you, the qualified precious Lama lord of beings,
who went to help the spiritually amenable at the Shanti Mountain,
victory banner of teachings for the benefit of others accomplished
through your Dharma teachings both scriptural and realizational.

I know a few of you may be asking the question, ‘Why do you call it a fake? Isn’t it just a rather nicely done reproduction?’ My answer is that since nobody in eBay is calling their sale item a ‘reproduction,’ someone along the line is misrepresenting it as an original, or at least allowing us to believe it is an original on the basis of (i.e., assuming as they do) our lack of knowledge. When the motive is to fool us, what we get when we buy it is what we rightly call a fake. When everyone is honest about it being a reproduction, that very same object is indeed a reproduction. I see nothing wrong with reproduction. Clear enough?

§   §   §

Source: David Weldon and Jane Casey Singer, The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet: Buddhist Art in the Nyingjei Lam Collection, Laurence King (London 1999), p. 135 (inscription visible on the back of the image): [illeg.] ngan lam ban chung bdag gis ni // bla ma rin chen sku bzhengs pa yi // bsod nams ’di yi byin brlabs kyis // ’gro drug sdug bsngal ... [illeg.], but see n. 310 on pp. 146-7 of same publication for the complete inscription (and here they see no proper name being given for the subject of the portrait):
na mo ’ghu ru / ngan lam ban chung bdag gis ni / bla ma rin chen sku bzhengs pa yi // bsod nams ’di yi byin brlabs kyis // 'gro drug sdug sngal zad par shog //

Heather Stoddard, 'Bri gung, Sa skya and Mongol Patronage, contained in: Ingried Kreide-Damani, ed., Dating Tibetan Art, Ludwig Reichert (Wiesbaden 2003), pp. 59-69.

- - -

At the website for the museum (please do go to the link) we read:  “A Portrait of Lama Rinchen-Pel (1143-1217) (Founder of the Drigung Monastery), Central Tibet, 13th century 1200s 

Title:A Portrait of Lama Rinchen-Pel (1143-1217) (Founder of the Drigung Monastery)
Maker:Central Tibet, 13th century
Medium: gilt bronze, inlaid with gold, silver, copper, turquoise, lapis and coral
Measurements: Overall: 13.5cm x 12cm x 8.5cm, Base: 8cm x 19cm x 14cm
Acquisition: Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund
Location: Not on display
Accession Number:1993.160
Department: Indian and South East Asian Art
Inscription: / / Na mo ’ghu ru / / Ngan lam ban chung bdag gis ni / / bla ma Rin chen sku bzhengs pa yi / / bsod nams ’di yi byin brlabs kyis / / ’gro drug sdug sngal zad par shog / /

Translation: "Salutations to the master ! May the sufferings of the six kinds of beings be appeased through the blessing of merit gained by me, the little monk of Ngan.lam, in having this statue of the Lama Rin.chen made."

(*My note: Notice how they capitalize "Lama Rin.chen" as if they knew it to be a proper name.)

 - - -

Interesting that the scribe for the inscription does not recognize Tibetan punctuation conventions governing the use of tsheg immediately before the shad (it uses tsheg in every case, all of them ‘incorrect’).  The ’a-chung beneath the 'm' in na-mô is totally unknown and superfluous (ignorance of Sanskrit is not the excuse it’s made to be). The ’ghu-ru spelling for Sanskrit guru is known to a mid-13th century manuscript we have often mentioned before, the Zhijé Collection (although not limited to it).  This is at least consistent with the purported dating of the sculpture to the 13th century.

I believe that the lama rinchen epithet is just an alternative version (more amenable to versified contexts) of lama rinpoche (bla-ma rin-po-che), and the latter is a way of referring to one's own teacher that was initiated by Pagmodrupa (I didn’t make this up — for testimony on this point see The Collected Writings [Gsung-’bum] of ’Bri-gung Chos-rje ’Jig-rten-mgon-po Rin-chen-dpal, reproduced photographically from the ’Bri-gung Yang-re-sgar xylographic edition, Khangsar Tulku [New Delhi 1969], vol. 4, p. 385).

The back of the Cleveland.  Notice where the inscription is
(there is no inscription on the fake version)

An as yet unidentified (or overconfidently identified)
early Kagyü Lama portrait in the
Cleveland Museum of Art

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tibetan Histories - Addenda et Corrigenda

A library at Lumbini (the LIRI)
Birthplace of Śākyamuni Buddha

Today’s blog is really nothing but a link to a Tibetological resource located at — Where else? — Tibeto-logical website. The only reason you may like to look at or download this file is because you are already familiar with a book called “Tibetan Histories” (if you haven’t seen it you can scroll through most of it at Googlebooks). Apparently Serindia, the publisher, has allowed it to go out of print, since already Amazon marketplace sellers are asking an arm and two legs for it. 

I would hang the full text up for free download, but I’m afraid it’s still under copyright for a few more years. So what I will put up here is a link to over an hundred pages of addenda.* Of course this file won’t make too much sense unless you have the original publication in hand.
(*This was already about 10 pages long when the book was released.)

I do this as a continuation of my homage to the late E. Gene Smith, who helped more than any other person with the really difficult bibliographical problems. I still have over ten pages of his detailed notes on my draft, which he sent me in Oslo when he was in Cairo. At the time we hadn’t even met, which does make his determination to help me as much as he possibly could that much more impressive.

Well, to keep this brief, if you think you will have a use for it, go download this file at Tibetological.* I’m afraid we haven’t been so diligent about adding references to the new publications that have come out during the last five or ten years, although eventually that ought to be rectified. 
(*As of 2020, that link is no longer active. Just go to this link instead:

If I may quote here what it says there,
"We hope that having this additional material accessible to internet searches will assist in solving some of the problems in Tibetan history bibliography that remain to be solved in the 21st century."

Sarnath, where Buddhist history in some sense began
(Tibetan histories very often include histories of Indian Buddhism as well)

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