What Buddhist Sculpture Means for Your Collection

Chinese gilt gold bronze Laughing Buddha statue, Quan Rong Gallery

Capturing centuries of some of the finest artisan-made, handcrafted works from many regions of Asia, Buddhist sculpture appeals to collectors who have an admiration of Asian culture, those who are interested in its historical meaning, and those who simply love the aesthetic.

For Buddhists, Buddha sculptures serve as visual imagery intended to narrate the various aspects of the Buddha’s life and lessons. Buddhism emphasizes qualities such as compassion, seeking personal development, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. Having a Buddha statue in your home can help practicing Buddhists to focus on these teachings daily. It might also be used as an object of worship by placing small offerings such as flowers or food around the statue in order to honor the Buddha.

The placement of a Buddhist statue in the home or at work can serve as an often needed reminder of teachings that can be easily applied to your everyday life, even for non-Buddhists. According to the New Jersey-based Quan Rong Gallery, “Buddha sculptures are cultural and social icons for Buddhism. Well-known examples have positive meanings for common people’s lives, and they are perfect for home decoration.”

Today’s Market: A Focus on Buddha

Small bronze statue of sitting Buddha, 18th century, Waterford’s Art &
Antiques Auctioneers
(December 2015)

Depictions of Buddha have a history of notable sales in the auction world. Quan Rong Gallery notes that some of the most popular examples that fetch high prices include Guanyin (kwan-yin), a popular goddess in Chinese folk religion, laughing Buddha (Budai), admired for his happiness, and Gautama Buddha (detailed below).

“Chinese Buddhist bronzes are bringing top dollar on the market today. However, there’s also a strong collector interest in Gandhara Buddhist sculpture,” says Ben Farina, Vice President & Department Head, Asian Arts at Freeman’s.

Some of the most in-demand materials in Buddhist sculpture are gilt bronze examples, Chinese particularly, and copper alloy Indian and Himalayan examples. These tend to fetch higher prices because of their durability, while sculptures from the Chinese Ming and early Qing dynasties are among the most sought-after at auction today, perhaps because of the powerful roles they played in China’s history. In contrast, Gandharan Buddhist sculpture is often made of carved stone.

In October 2013, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold a gilt bronze figure of a seated Buddha from the Ming Dynasty for $30 million. If you’re interested in collecting Buddha sculptures yourself, don’t let that price tag deter you—there is a wide range of prices for these works on the market, based on quality and rarity.

Emergence of Buddha in Sculpture

Understanding the rich history and iconography of Buddhist deities and their role within the Buddhist religion can help inform your search. In the earliest Buddhist sculpture, Buddha was not represented in human form but rather through symbols such as footprints or an empty seat. It is believed that sculptures of Buddha were not first created until 400-500 years following the death of Guatama Buddha, in the subcontinent of India.

When images of Buddha began to emerge around the first century CE in India, artists were greatly influenced by Roman statues, made possible by the trade routes that connected the East with the West. This Buddha appeared reminiscent of Apollo: youthful with hair arranged in waves, and clad in a robe adorned with heavy classical folds.

As Buddhism evolved in southern India, these Hellenistic elements were combined with Buddhist symbolism such as serious faces, jewelry alluding to Buddha’s noble past as well as Bodhisattva’s noble heavenly status.

Ratanakosin gilded bronze Prince Siddharta prior to his enlightenment,
Thailand, c. 19th century, Artemis Gallery

From the fourth to sixth century A.D., the Gupta period developed in northern India. These sculptures focused on an “ideal image” of the Buddha by combining select traits such as tiny individual curls for the Buddha’s hair, with luxurious forms such as dramatic drapery folds taken from Gandharan sculpture, or the transparent sheaths created by Mathura artists. Combined with their unsmiling, downward glances, this image of the Buddha came to represent a certain spiritual aura and served as a model for future generations of Buddha artists from various regions.

It is widely believed that Buddha allowed images of himself, so long as those images provided the opportunity for reflection and meditation. Because of this, virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries contain Buddha sculptures.

Creation Process

Seated figure of Buddha, Nepal, lost wax cast silver & jewels, Primitive

Buddhist sculpture is created by specially trained and dedicated artisans who follow meticulous guidelines dictating proportions and other details of the Buddha, further adding to its uniqueness. Local ritual texts that serve to “enliven” the image of the Buddha are the manuals for these artisans. When India’s artisans first began creating these sculptures, they worked with perishable materials such as brick, wood, thatch, or bamboo. As the religion spread rapidly throughout Asia, they began to adopt stone, a more durable material. Soon, stone railings and gateways covered with relief sculptures were added to Buddhist shrines. It was not long before even more durable materials such as bronze and metal were also widely used, in an effort to make these sculptures more long-lasting.


These sculptures range from simple stone depictions to more elaborate medieval endeavors. In all regions, Buddha sculptures are used to recall specific incidents during his travels and teachings. Like Gandharan and Indian sculptures, those in Laos and Thailand often include an usnisa (protuberance at the top of the skull), with a serene facial expression. Elongated earlobes are also common, calling attention to the Buddha’s renunciation of a princely life when he was weighed down by material possessions.

Burmese gilded wood Buddha, c. late 18th century, Artemis Gallery

Hand gestures, or mudra, play an important role in how Buddha sculpture is represented, says Farina, and certain gestures are favored depending on region. In Laos and Thailand, charity is represented by the extension of the lowered, open right hand and fingers, while the hand touching the earth alludes to the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Sculptures of Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas may share certain characteristics with that of the Buddha, such as elongated earlobes, while also having some more distinct attributes. Each deity is associated with a particular vehicle such as a bull, lion, or bird, making them easily recognizable. Deities may also carry certain objects that further help to identify them. Avalokiteshvara often carries a lotus, while Bodhisattva Maitreya carries a water vessel.

Below are just some of the most commonly found symbols and gestures in Buddhist sculpture:

  • Lotus flower: a symbol of good and pure things
  • Conch shell: an emblem of power and authority
  • The wheel: signifies the Eightfold path set forth by the Buddha, as well as the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It also signifies the wheel of law
  • Parasol: The parasol, or umbrella, casts a shadow of protection and is also a symbol of royalty
  • The endless knot: the interaction of opposing forces
  • Golden fish: the two sacred rivers of India, Ganga and Yamuna
  • Victory banner: an emblem of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the triumph of knowledge over ignorance

Quality & Authenticity

It’s important for collectors to become familiar with the history of Buddhist sculpture in order to help validate the authenticity of an object. For instance, stucco material was favored in Gandhara as well as Thailand, and bronze and copper alloys in Nepal.

Above all, the buyer should always look for great quality. Quality considers a variety of aspects, including the rarity of the subject, the skill of the artist, and the attention to stylistic modeling such as detailed hands, jewelry, and drapery.

Figure of Buddha, polychrome, 1850, Pagoda Red

“The biggest thing is to be fairly cautious or fairly skeptical, particularly if something is claimed to be a fabulous example which has traditionally, or more recently, brought lots of money at auction. For example, if you are seeing a gilt bronze Buddha from the early Ming Dynasty that has an imperial mark selling for $2-3,000, you should approach it with skepticism,” says Farina.

Lastly, it’s important to keep condition in mind and remain realistic. While bronze and stone are durable materials, other materials such as stucco are more difficult to preserve as it is more vulnerable to water damage and weathering elements. “Be sure to keep them in dry areas at room temperature, and avoid direct sunlight,” says Quan Rong Gallery.

Looking Ahead

What’s to come for these historic works of art? According to Farina, the same general art market rule applies to Buddhist sculpture: there will always be demand for the highest quality examples.

“These are beautiful works of art, and like any beautiful work of art, there will always be an interest in them. The craftsmanship and technique that goes into making them is truly remarkable,” says Farina. “Even if the marketplace weakens, the best examples will retain value or even increase in value. I suspect the market for the greatest examples will remain strong throughout 2017.”