An object arrives at a gallery. What do you do next?

When three brass Buddha statues turned up at the SOAS Gallery, the team had to find out where they came from. Collections and Outreach Officer Lucy Kauser takes us on a journey of what happened next. 

It’s business as usual for us at the Gallery – someone turns up with an object they’d like to give us, but they don’t know anything about it. What do we do in such circumstances?

What to consider first

This is especially important for us, as we have to be exceptionally mindful that any objects we accept into our collections have good provenance and have been acquired ethically. In addition to this, there are a whole host of other considerations. Things like ensuring the object is relevant to our wider collections, that it is something we have the resources to look after properly, and even just that we have enough space to store it.

Finding clues about the three brass Buddhas 

Well, all this came up again when we were presented with three small Buddhist statues that had been stored in the SOAS archives. An old note on the box they came in stated that the objects were to remain here (at SOAS) ‘for some time’. This was dated 1945, so it has indeed been ‘some time’! At the top of the note was the name ‘Sir Henry Stephen’, so he may have been the owner of the objects.

A note from 1988 that says 'Two Bronze Buddhas which Sir Cyril Phillips had in his room while Vice-Chancellor'
A note from 1988 helps to trace the journey of the statues. 

There was another document in the box, a slip of paper, this time from 1988. It stated that the sculptures had been kept in the office of the former SOAS Director, Sir Cyril Phillips. It was on the Library notepaper, so it is likely they were taken to the Library after his tenure.

Where is it from?

This was all we had for the background of how the objects got to SOAS, so the rest of their story needed to come from elsewhere. The best thing was to find this out straight from the objects themselves. We could tell that they were likely from Tibet, so we took the next step we generally took – we contacted one of our SOAS academics to get their opinion on the objects.

Asking a SOAS academic

We spoke to Dr Christian Luczanits, Lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at SOAS. After an initial email conversation, Dr Luczanits visited the Gallery. He checked the statues over one by one, noting identifying features. From these, he could tell the location from which they originated – possibly even the workshop. They were of varying quality. For example, one had bubbles in the metalwork, and two of them did not have the front design continue onto the back. 

Dr Lucanits looking at buddhist sculpture in Foyle gallery
Dr Luczanits was crucial in finding out more about the statues.

Another had much finer decoration, including turquoise stone inlay in the urna (forehead dot), copper on the lips, and silver on the eyes. Two were clearly of the historical Buddha, while one was of a much lesser-known Tibetan teacher – something we would never have been able to guess without the expertise of Dr Luczanits.

It turned out that at least two of them were 20th-century, although made in an older style. They were likely made for sale, possibly for people to purchase for home temples. Maybe a SOAS academic purchased them at one of these shops before bringing them back to the institution in the early 1900s. 

Learning how to identify an object

This whole episode was so fascinating that we are going to run a workshop for visitors to learn about the sculptures from Dr Luczanits. Through the medium of these sculptures, he will not only teach you about Tibetan art but also demonstrate how to identify the age, region, or other details by inspecting an object. 

The workshop 'Object in Focus' will be on Wednesday 24 April, 1:15pm - 2:00 pm. It’s free and open to the public – everyone’s welcome! However, spaces are limited, so if you are interested, please book your free ticket

We are still learning about these objects. If you have anything you would like to share about them, please do let us know


About the author

Lucy Kauser is the Collections and Engagement Officer at the SOAS Gallery.