Antique Bronzes: To clean or not to clean?

This is Amitayus, Buddhist meditation God of Limitless life. Amitayus was the subject of my last week’s blog. The picture on our left is how he was when I bought him. Partly out of curiosity and partly needing to bring out the features more, I cleaned it (warm water,  mild detergent and soft brush). The result is on our right, the one with the dark background. When I shared the photos in an online forum, I was rebuked for cleaning the bronze, the patina is gone and loss of value (as much as one third).

In India, the Vigrahas are cleaned regularly whether in temples, other religious places or at homes. Quite often every day. This cleaning is in addition to the daily Abhisheka, ritual bathing. Let me quote a few sentences from the book The Sensuous and the Sacred, Chola bronzes from South India by Vidhya Dehejia. Ritual purification

The daily bathing will include ‘a range of substances that might include milk, honey, curds, ghee, sugar and jaggery, followed by water, after which cooling, fragrant sandal paste and turmeric are applied

On return from the procession “tamarind and palm-olive (Boondi Kottai) are softened with water and then used, together with the seed and stringy pulp, to rub-down the bronzes“.  ” Then follows an equally vigorous cleansing with sacred ash“. The photo on our right is also from the same book.

While talking about recovered buried bronzes Vidhya Dehejia mentions ” Buried bronzes that display green patina evoke the admiration of art lovers but are anathema to temple authorities who would prefer to restore the images to the original lustre“.

Such cleaning to show the original lustre is a common practice even for household Vigrahas. Personal observations and personal experiences.

Collectors, especially in the Western world, frown on any cleaning. Anything that affects patina and/or removal of unguents is seen as a loss of history and context. Well, keep in mind the history, as indicated by the accumulated patina, starts only after the bronze (the Vigraha) is removed from worship.  Hence the patina, despite its aesthetic appeal, is not an indicator of the age or the history of the bronzes.

When I spoke to few of my Indian collector friends, the general view is some non-abrasive cleaning (warm water, mild detergent and brush) is encouraged to remove grime, dirt and to bring out the features. One of them said he normally cleans only the front and leaves the back untouched.

One of my collector friends said ” If you are planning to keep it, clean it if that is what you want. Do not clean it if you are planning to sell it and let the buyer decide”. Wise words.



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