Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition. 

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Fakes, Part 1 – An Introduction

Milarepa, after restoration

Just the mention of fakes immediately gets everybody’s attention in the museum and art world. Though at first thought it might seem like everyone’s on the same page when it comes to fakes, the discussion surrounding fake art is actually very complicated, with many different stakeholders, not least the collectors of art—museums, private collectors, and sellers. It also doesn’t help that there’s a lot of money involved.

When approaching the topic of a potentially fake artwork, any ethical question must consider motivation: is, or was there, “the intention to deceive” on the part of the seller or artist? Can an artwork be intended exclusively for the tourist or pilgrim market, and thus not be of the quality or subject-accuracy of other works?

Has there been conservation work, and what of the difference between traditional conservation techniques and modern methods? What about restoration and over-restoration?

Art as commodity plays an important role in the discussion of fakes. It can be very lucrative to take a damaged sculpture or painting and invest time and money into restoration with the intent to resell. What should the seller say to the prospective buyer? Should there be full disclosure on the amount of restoration work done? 

So far, all of this may sound very un-Buddhist and distant, but what if a painting or sculpture contains inaccurate iconography, made-up mandalas, unknown hats, or deities with extra faces and arms that are  supported in neither literature nor the living Buddhist tradition, be it Nyingma, Sakya, or another schools?

Milarepa, before restoration

The example given is a painting of Milarepa. Both the post-restoration and pre-restoration image are shown. The “before” image betrays significant damage to the painting in which the paint has been lost, at parts, right down to the white ground, and even to the weave of the support cloth. The “after” image remarkably shows a painting with very little damage—if any—and all of the figures complete. From a Buddhist practitioner’s point of view, this heavily restored painting may be a wonderful thing to behold, but does it convey the artist’s intent, give an accurate representation of a 14th- or 15th-century Tibetan painting, and, lastly, does the iconography remain a suitable object of worship for tantric practice?

This is just the beginning of an important discussion about fake Buddhist art that concerns all Buddhist practitioners in one way or another.

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