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


  1. Many thanks for the heads up.

    How does that old, hackneyed phrase go ...?

    "All that glitters is not gold."

  2. I don't know what it looks like on your system, but the Unicode Tibetan looks fine to me in IE8 and Chrome on Vista, except for the "na.mô" (ན་མོ ྰ་) where you have a space before the a-chung. If you remove the space, and put the a-chung before the naro (always put the a-chung before any vowel marks when writing Unicode Tibetan) then it displays OK (ན་མྰོ་). BTW, the Wylie has "bsod.nams" where the Unicode Tibetan has "bsod rnams" (བསོད་རྣམས).

  3. Dear Andrew,

    Maybe by summer sometime I'll be updated to a 21st century Mac, which ought to solve my problem. I'm only about 5 years behind, which isn't bad for me, really. I'll go try to fix those problems you indicate, but I'm unable to see the letters as you see them. The "bsod rnams" (བསོད་རྣམས) was just my own careless typo (shame, shame, shame on me). Thanks for writing, as always.


  4. As of August 4, 2011, the image depicted in our frontispiece is still for sale. You can get the very sparkling polished gilt version for 4,999.99 USD here.

    OR, you can get a not-so-well gilded versionfor 2,999.99 USD here

    And you can find a crusty antiqued version for 1,999.99 USD here.

    Whichever fine fake you may choose to purchase, just think what a good investment it could make, if other people are as gullible as you! And chances are, they are. Notice how they all use the word "old." How old is old?

  5. This is definitely a Phagmodrupa statue!!
    He is portrayed as very robust because he was famous for being very strong!
    Sometimes he has a beard or touches both sides of ground or has sutras in his lap just like Marpa or Drukpa. When Jigten Sumgon is in this Shakyamuni pose he has a longevity Amitayus vase and is much skinnier in face and body.

  6. Jigten Sumgon is emanation of Amitabha so that is reason for longevity vase.
    Gampopa usually is in vajra posture with dharma wheel or flaming jewel in his hands.

  7. Dear Rinchen,

    Good day! Thanks for writing. I agree with you that Phagmodrupa is the most likely candidate for the subject of the Cleveland, mainly because of the huge neckless head, which very often characterizes him in early portraits.

    I think it's possible there •was• a longevity vase on the Cleveland's upturned left palm. Perhaps a close inspection of the original would tell us if something that was once attached there might have been removed at some point.

    I think the real key to identification is knowing who the patron was. Who was that Small Monk of Nganlam? I couldn't come up with anything about any early Kagyü monk from that part of Uru (Dbu-ru), but perhaps if somebody has all those Kagyü collected works on their computer from Tony Duff's "Tibetan Computer Company" they could search through them all and see if anything pops up. (I don't have any of them myself.)

    But yes, very likely Phagmodrupa. I agree. Just how to add a bit more verification? Everyone loves a mystery. Or is it that they just enjoy tackling unsolved problems?


  8. Dear Dan,
    Phagmodrupa was famous for always wearing a meditation belt even when sleeping, maybe explains hidden back foot? Also I have never seen Gampopa statue without a hat! But I have seen many Jigtens and Phagmodrupas without hat. It could possibly be a lineage lama after Jigten but they always have hats because of the "big hat" Jigten was very famous for wearing.
    But yes I am a silly person more interested in mysterious smoke around the reality mirror.
    I also buy a lot of fake buddhas!!
    ;-) -r

  9. Also I am sure their was no vase or bowl or peg hole in hand of this statue because of the placement, it would be centered. The center would be at his fingers here not edge or center of palm like it should be. Milarepa or the mahasiddhas would not necessarily have their bowls centered on body but this type of statue definitely would.

  10. I was wrong it is GURU MARPA!!! No bowl in his hand just sutras or mala maybe.
    He is also big burly guru!
    Mystery solved.
    Yeah Marpa is precious.

  11. Well, the outer cloak is made of rather magnificent material, but the rest of the clothing sure looks like patched monastic robe, so it couldn't be Marpa, really, who wears nice chubas, and a flat-top haircut just like my dad used to favor.

    One more clue, since if we could only learn something about the sponsor of the image, we might know whose student he was, which could help us a lot with identifying the subject of the portrait: Some Tibetanists believe that Ngan-lam, when it appears as a royal winter resort in O.T. documents from Dunhuang, is in 'Phan-yul valley way up in the upper river courses north of Lhasa. But G. Hazod, who does an amazing job at solving these kinds of problems, believes it's Tshal Gung-thang area, just a pleasant 10 minute bike ride upstream from the bridge that goes into Lhasa. Quite close to Lhasa in fact. Hmm. What a coincidence, I'm planning to say something about this very place in my next blog.

    Ngan-lam is also a clan name, it seems, but clan names can also be place names (areas the clan did or does inhabit... Or do the clans take their names from the places?). OK, enough of that for today. I still have a sense the identity problem is still a little bit up in the air. Thanks for writing and have a good day.


  12. I'm afraid it's not really over yet.

    The Lho-rong Dharma History (p. 181) may be the only one that says so, but it places Zhang Yudragpa's birthplace, Tsha-ba-gru, in the area of Ngan-lam. So if Zhang is the Ngan-lam Ban-chung (and I'm not saying he is), our statue ought to be of one of his six main teachers, I'd say. Most likely candidate would be Sgom-tshul, Gampopa's nephew (rather like Gampopa, like you say, R.), he would very likely be wearing the hat that was (I think) named after him.

    Wait, maybe we have to take the Lama Zhang option more seriously. He calls himself a Ngan-lam-pa a time or two in colophons to his written compositions. He also constantly signs his name as Ban-chung. Often it's Sna-nam Ban-chung or the like, but sometimes it's just Ban-chung alone (I didn't find any "Ngan-lam Ban-chung," but now it is indeed starting to look like a name he *could* have used for himself). Of course he wasn't the only one to call himself (in a typical humble style) Ban-chung. I'll keep saying Hmmmm and maybe a little more of that annoying smoke will clear, who knows?


  13. Dear Dan,
    You are thinking of the one famous thangka painting where he has flat top:

    I have seen him depicted with many different hair styles long and short! Curly, poofy, straight hair! It is most certainly him! He almost always has a cloak and monkish robe in this style. He is pretty much considered like the patron saint buddha by Tibetans, much like guru Padmasambhava! They seem to sometimes forget Naropa and Tilopa like things started with him. I guess because he brought the things back to Tibet and he was Tibetan.
    The only other buddha statues I know of like him with this cloak is patron saints like Bhutan Drukpa or standing Thailand Shakyamuni.
    I might be an amateurish silly buddha fan but my intuition is keen and this is definitely Marpa!!!
    I will be quiet now and leave it to you.


  14. Dear Rinchen Anon.,

    I guess Marpa, like some guys I have known for a long time, had quite different hairstyles at different stages of his life. But more important in my opinion is (and I could imagine very much being proven mistaken here; but then I would be reluctant to accept that new evidence that would ruin my worldview now, wouldn't I?) that he is never ever shown with square-patched monastic robes as he is here. Ergo: Neither the Cleveland nor its clone could possibly be Marpa. He was a wealthy farmer layperson-traveller, and a great Hevajra practitioner, but never a monk. Not even monkish. OK, maybe a little.


  15. I'd like to point out that in the book I just got in the mail today, David P. Jackson, with contributions by Christian Luczanits, Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits from Tibet (Rubin Museum NY 2011), fig. 5.3 on p. 137, you find the Cleveland image illustrated above. In the caption it is identified as Phagmotrupa (Phagmo Drupa, Phag-mo-gru-pa), and it's dated to ca. late 12th to early 13th centuries. On this point, see also the discussion with "Rinchen" up above. I'm very eager to read this book. It promises to be the most important book on "Early Portraits from Tibet" EVER.

    I see that the Musée Guimet image identified as Jigten Gönpo is also illustrated here as fig. 5.26 on p. 160.


  16. I'd just like to point out that, after a quick check of what was available under "lama statues" on eBay (in addition to a few stray Llamas), a number of copies of the same statue that is featured in this blog. The prices are as low as USD 1,999 for the "old Tibet" version with the crusty corrosion, and as high as 8,360 (5% off the earlier price of 8,800) for the "9 inch bronze 100% gold-pating the tibet buddhism Dalai Lama statue" version. Does the PRC dealer actually think it's H.H. the Dalai Lama?

  17. PRC sellers often seem to purposefully list Tibetan things totally wrong. Need a Tara? Type Amitayus haha!
    I often search for unrelated to Dalai lama items from PRC under his name to find cool stuff. search for "king kong buddha"
    PRC sellers usually always have great stuff under this title.

    "Witch Doctor" or "Demon" are also good searches for wrathful Tibetan deities.

    Need a yabyum statue? It is a bit naive or disturbing but try "buddha with child on lap"


  18. Dear Rinchenla,

    Oh, my. I couldn't believe what you say about the "King Kong Buddhas," but it sent me out looking on the web, and it's really all over the place. I'm sort of imagining a Buddha going and knocking down tall buildings and snatching up beautiful women... Not a nice image, really!

    But, well, isn't there a kind of background that would seem to explain this? I mean, isn't there a Chinese word for Vajra that looks something like King Kong? (Maybe King Kang, I forgot)

    Anyway, thanks for contributing to Tibeto-logic.


  19. Dear Dan,

    I'm sorry I've missed all of the lively give & take in your wonderful blog. I'm still catching up, I think, with the entries from 2007 - which is about my speed.

    I can add a little on Lama Zhang and 'Ngan lam ban chung', though I'm not sure what it means with regard to the statue (though it does resemble somewhat the Zhang statues in the Marchais and Halpert collections - check out the ears!). Aside from the passage from Lho rong chos 'byung you mention, I've seen in Zhang's works occurrences of both 'Ban chung' and 'Ngan lam', but I've never seen them together - though there are a couple places where he identifies himself as 'ngan lam pa'i sprang ban zhang': “Zhang the beggar-monk of Ngam lam.” Most of the references to Ngan lam seem to associate it with 'Brong bu, and Soerensen & Hazod place it right in the heart of the Tshal area. Many of the references I've come upon are in colophons. Here are a few:

    First, the colophon to *'Brong bu lkugs par gsungs pa'i man ngag lhug pa*, on page 291 of vol. 4 of Khenpo's Shedup's collection of Zhang's works:

    ngan lam pa'i sprang ban zhang ston (“Teacher Zhang the beggar-monk of Ngan lam”) gyis rang nyid kyi gnyen por rang nyid la smras pa/_sri'i 'brong bu lkugs par bris pa dge/

    The colophon to *Bdud ngos 'dzin pa'i man ngag che long du byas pa* reads:

    sprang ban zhang gis skyid shod ngan lam byang phyi'i 'brong bur bsdebs pa'o// (“Put together by beggar-monk Zhang in Byang phyi'i 'brong bu, Skyid shod Ngan lam”) V.94

    This one is interesting because it puts Ngam lam in Skyid shod, which clearly distinguishes it from the Ngam lam further north in 'Phan yul.

    The colophon to song #1 from his collection called 'Byang phyi 'brong du gsungs pa'i ku re bzhi' also places Ngan lam in Skyid shod:

    sprang ban zhang gis ngan lam byang phyi 'brong bu spyi khungs su bsdebs pa'o// ("Put together by beggar-monk Zhang at Ngan lam Byang phyi 'brong bu”) V.482

    And finally, the colophon to a work I first became aware of through you - the stunning 'Gu rub ri bo skyid kyis zhus pa'i khrel 'debs' - places the requestor/patron in Ngyan lam:

    ngan lam byang phyi'i yon bdag gu rub re bo skyid kyis/ bla ma zhang ston la/ khyed rang nyid kyis khyed rang nyid la bstod pa zhig zhu byas pas ... V.665

    I hope this gives backing to your case for Lama Zhang as 'Ngyan lam Ban chung'. I don't know enough to have an opinion on the statue, but it would somehow seem fitting for Lama Zhang to make his modern debut in an Ebay scam.

    Best wishes,


    I'm looking at the Marchais, Halpern, Cleveland, & Ebay images side by side. It might be interesting to post them next to each other. If I could post such an image, I would.

  20. Dear Carl,

    Thank you so much for all of that information. I think it does successfully firm up the identity of Lama Zhang as being none other than the Ngan-lam Ban-chung mentioned in the inscription of the Cleveland image. I put up the four images placed side-by-side that you sent separately at the end of the blog (see above). It may be too small, but it may also expand when clicked upon.

    But regardless of the similarities between the images, there is one thing that stands in the way of my identifying the Cleveland image (and its clone) with the other more verifiable images of Zhang (the Halpert and Marchais). That is the reading of the Cleveland inscription (missing from its clone), where there is just no good way of construing it that would make it say that Ngan-lam Ban-chung is the *subject* of the sculpture; it's very clear that he is the *patron* who had it made. Now it would seem odd if Lama Zhang had made an image of one of his close-contemporaries Phagmodrupa or Jigten Gönpo, true. What are you thinking? The set of hand gestures aren't really indicative of identity, or not enough to clinch the deal, so are we going to go with the big ears? I'd like to hear more about the ears.
    Thanks for writing.

  21. On May 27, 2014, I went to eBay and saw our usual knockoff of the Cleveland Museum image, the one discussed in this blog, described as an "8"Inch Tibetan Sacred Lhasa Pure Bronze 24K Gold Buddhist Lama's tutor Statue." The price? 3,500 US dollars. Seller? zhongxinjieshop98988. The fakery is still going strong. I had to laugh at the "Pure Bronze 24K Gold," as if that were even possible. But if you happened to buy it it wouldn't be the least bit funny.

  22. Hello taxes.
    I have little collector of Czech repuliky. I've discovered in our auction during the same statue. They argue that it is a 18th century Tibet lama of the Gelugpa. Sold for 13,680 usd. but the more it resembles the same piece as on ebay? I hope not .. but Cleveland is much more precise ..
    here I am sending a place where you can see the online catalog auction house in Czech Republic
    Auction, Winter 2014 catalog # 2684
    thanks for your text, it's very interesting

  23. Dear S.K., I'm not sure I followed what you were saying, and although I did look at the catalog for 2014, I didn't find any image there that resembles the Cleveland image. Why is that? Anyway, thanks for contributing to the discussion. These fakes are still out there, and still have very high asking prices. Beware!


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