After 40 years of building a unique collection of Buddhist art, Malaysian born, Queen's Counsel, Cheng Huan, S.C., is selling it with Bonhams on May 15th in London.
The Cambridge educated Chinese barrister grew up in a Buddhist home which also celebrated Daoism and Confucianism. He then attended a school run by Christian missionaries - an education that gave him access to many religions and much religious art.
"Therefore, I grew up in the company of the scent of joss sticks, the smile of a Dehua guan-yin, the protection of kitchen gods (one among many gods), offerings of food and paper money and the clicketty-clack of fortune-telling sticks. Festivals and family anniversaries were a mixture of Buddhism and ancient folklore, the latter sometimes the dominant aspect of ceremonies. Everyday habits were also tinged with Hindu ones because in those days Malaya was home to many more immigrants from the Indian sub-continent (also a British colony) than from China proper," he says.
A friendship formed in London with a student from Sikkim, a Buddhist kingdom high up in the Himalayas, turned out to be life changing. Tenzing turned out to be the crown prince of Sikkim. As a result two visits to Sikkim followed which were "both an eye and a mind opener." The result was a love affair with Tibetan Buddhism and its art forms that has lasted a lifetime.
He began to collect gilt bronzes hunting them down in countries around the world. "Sometimes months would go by without a worthwhile purchase. Then, all of sudden, I would make a significant find. Such was the case with the six bronze Densatil caryatid figures (five of them gilded) I spotted on a dusty shelf in a filthy cramped room. Could they be truly from the famed Densatil monastery I asked myself? Too good to be true I worried. Their refinement, solidity and weight, however, convinced me of their authenticity. There were many moments like that, often in strange places such as a car-boot sale in the UK, a back-alley thrift shop in New England, a narrow lane in Kyoto, and of course a few of Hong Kong's reputable dealers. Other objects could only be located at full prices at London dealers."
The objects in this collection have come from Cheng Huan's Elizabethan-period stately home in Wiltshire, Stockton House, and from his collection in Hong Kong. He comments: "I hope these objects, which I have admired for many pleasurable years, will bring equal joy and happiness to their new owners. Om Mani Padme Hum!" ("Hail to the Jewel of the Lotus!")
Asaph Hyman, Bonhams Director of Chinese art, adds: "It is a privilege to offer Cheng Huan's breathtaking collection and to have the unique opportunity to share in his spiritual journey and the sublime beauty of Buddhist art".