Things to Consider When Acquiring a Thangka

While there may be guides or easily-sourced information on buying more modern Western art, it is hard to find reliable information on what to look for and what to consider when acquiring a thangka.

Tashi frequently presents this information at gallery and museum openings, as well as at his demonstrations, these are some of the things he asks people to consider:

“Who painted this piece?”
A thangka’s creation is in itself, a skillful meditative practice by the artist.  The intention that goes into its creation is important to consider.  For Tashi, he will not paint on a day that he feels his mind is not calm, and he is not fully focused on the benefit the thangka will bring.

“Antique or contemporary origin?”
Many museums showcase thangka from the 14th through 19th centuries.  These are beautiful pieces of history, however, it begs the question, “How were they acquired?” Tibet was literally a closed nation up until the 1940s, and thangka were closely held by practitioners in their home shrines, or in monasteries, they were not an ‘export item’.

At the advent of the Chinese invasion in Tibet in 1949, monasteries were pillaged and razed.  This was amplified during the cultural revolution (1966-76), during which time, over 6,000 monasteries were looted and destroyed.

Thangka prior to the Dalai Lama’s escape into India in 1959 should be closely scrutinized for certificates of origin, to ensure they were acquired through legitimate means.

“Supporting Contemporary Art?”
Traditional Tibetan art is in need of support as much as any other contemporary art form, even more so in light of the cultural genocide that exists in Tibet today.

With the belief that art is a necessary fire to keep culture alive and bright, Tibetan contemporary artists are pivotal to the continuation of dharma and Tibetan culture.

Tibetan traditional contemporary art needs to be afforded the same consideration as other modern arts, with the special consideration that it is the hallmark of a culture still under persecution.

Many young Tibetans devote years of study to their traditional art both in Tibet, and especially upon coming into exile in India.  However, the art form is oft challenged by a limited interested supporting art public, and contemporary artists and masters, are forced to leave their paints behind when they venture to Western countries, as they are not able to support themselves with their artisan skills.

“What should I consider in thangka valuation?”
Thangka have been traditionally hard to valuate. Within Tibetan culture, thangka ‘middle men’ are viewed in the same light as the local meat seller.  People want the end result, but look unfavorably upon those who profit from it.  This is one reason why it can be hard to find Tibetan shops who sell thangka, or why you will not find Tibetan thangka easily in the shops of Nepal and India (though thangka of other origin are readily available.)

Modern Tibetan artists working in the traditional form must struggle with a cultural and ethical dilemma not harbored by their western artist contemporaries.  A contemporary artist of modern art may be able to say, this painting is worth ‘X’, and command that price based on what the market will bear, investment value, or fame. Their Tibetan counterpart is not afforded this luxury, they must justify the valuation.  Things to consider are:
1- What materials are used? If they are traditional, what measures must the artist go to to procure these materials, and what are their costs? (For example, what is the market rate for gold?)
2 – What is the local economy and where is the artist working? Many master artists have fled Tibet, and joined a western diaspora outside of India.  One thangka may take six months to create, working 40 hours a week.  Is the artist remunerated for not only their time to create the piece (in some cases 100-600 hours for one thangka), but is it at a liveable wage, and one commensurate with their skill level?

“Devotion versus emotion?”
An outstanding difference between Traditional Tibetan art and other contemporary art forms is the motivation.  Thangka are painted in strict adherence to guidelines, passed down from teacher to student.  Devoid of ego, many thangka artists will not sign their pieces, firmly believing their ego should not be present on an image of a Buddha.

Decisions on the environment, or background, are often left to the artist, what they deem most beautiful, or honorific.  However, proportions, mudras, implements, positioning, and coloring of the Buddhas and deities are not left open to interpretation.