At Bodhisattva, we list the approximate age of our singing bowls based on our evaluation of authentic wear on the metal, and date them “circa” their century of manufacture. “Circa” means “about”. Absent a specific date inscribed on the piece, this term art historians use to indicate an approximate range 100 years before or after the manufacture. For example, if we label a bowl “circa 18th Century”, that means we estimate that the date of manufacture could have occurred either 100 years prior to, or after, the 1700s. It is important to note that even among art historians, experts sometimes disagree.
In the Eastern tradition, Indo-Tibetan painting and sculpture were considered to be a sacred art,
glorifying the subject rather than the artist, and hence were rarely signed by the artist or inscribed with a date. In this cultural context, singing bowls also were rarely inscribed with any information. More often than not, inscriptions we see on antique bowls today appear to have been added after the original manufacture.
Bodhisattva’s system of dating singing bowls was developed based on the work of Indo-Tibetan bronze art historian Ulrich Von Schroeder, author of the authoritative volume “Indo-Tibetan Bronzes” published in 1981. In an attempt to discover a system of dating Info-Tibetan sculpture, Von Schroeder assembled a collection of thousands of photographs of bronze sculptures acquired from collectors and museums throughout the world. Starting with the known, dated pieces, he identified them by stylistic characteristics and classified them together with other similar pieces. This body of work then showed similar levels of wear on the surface of the bronze from handling consistent with known ritual practices, such as touching and ritual washing. Similarly, as we know how singing bowls were used and played throughout the centuries, we can observe the wear on the metal’s surface and conjecture an approximate date range of manufacture.
Over the past decade, due to the dwindling supply of authentic antique singing bowls, singing bowl manufacturers have taken to “aging” new bowls, adding fake patina, oxidation, and so forth. Patina, or the natural darkening of oxidizing bronze, is not a reliable way to determine the age of any antique bowl. Conversely, if the patina of an antique has been stripped in the cleaning process before export, it will have a bright golden finish with little or no patina at all. For example, the exterior surface of this circa 16th century singing bowl (pictured left) has been preserved beautifully, and has a lustrous, medium-gold, matte finish. Yet, on closer observation, its rim is bright, shiny gold with a reflective finish. This is because we gently sanded the exterior of the rim to remove any oxidation so we would record a clean rim tone. To the untrained eye, this bowl could appear new. So the presence of patina, or its absence, is a factor in the dating of singing bowls, but not a determining one.
To make matters more challenging, in the last few years suppliers have been sanding the surface of singing bowls for export. We suspect this might be an attempt to shortcut cleaning process for oxidized antiques to make them more presentable for market. We are working with our suppliers to try to discontinue this practice in order to conserve the beautiful, original surface of antique singing bowls. The other motivation for sanding the bowls may be simply fraudulent: to smooth the appearance of brand new bowls to make them look old. The Highwall singing bowl pictured to the right was dated circa 18th century by a prominent singing bowl “expert”, despite the excessive sanding marks on its exterior. Sanding marks should not be confused with the lighter, surfaces scratches created by cleaning with the scruffy part of a kitchen sponge, which almost all singing bowls have by the time they reach us, unfortunately. Our policy regarding sanded bowls is that if so much of the original surface of a bowl has been removed that we can no longer make an educated estimate of a bowl’s date range of manufacture, we will discount these bowls and sell them as undated, Master-Quality® Bowls in the New Singing Bowl section of our website. We also offer some good sounding reproductions in this section as well.
We tend to be conservative in our dating. In the art world, antiques are considered to be at least 100 years old, or older. If a Master-quality® singing bowl presents some wear but not enough to substantiate 100 years of age, we will date it circa 20th century. We include some older looking, circa 20th century, Master-quality® bowls in our antique galleries, but we do not certify them as antiques. The truth is, the great majority of singing bowls sold online are newly manufactured. There are simply not enough antiques left for dozens of singing bowl providers to have a supply of hundreds of antique singing bowls year in and year out.
It is extremely hard to determine if a bowl is authentic by a picture, as pictures can be altered and are not high enough resolution to provide enough detail. We do not offer appraisals for that reason. But here are some considerations to keep in mind when buying an antique singing bowl on the internet:
- Does the dealer offer an estimated date range of the antiques manufacture? If a dealer is reluctant to estimate the age of a bowl, it either means the dealer is not qualified to do so, or that the bowl may not actually be an antique at all. Saying a bowl is “old” can mean it’s one year, one month or one week old! Saying its “vintage” doesn’t mean its antique, either.
- Look for a CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY. If a vendor is not able to offer one, again, it may be because the vendor is reluctant to put their claim of antiquity in writing. At Bodhisattva, we include a Certificate of Authenticity with all of our Master-quality® antique singing bowls.
- Look for a “MONEY-BACK” guarantee, as opposed to a “SATISFACTION GUARANTEE”. At Bodhisattva, we offer a 100% product refund (minus a 10% re-stocking fee) if a bowl is returned in re-saleable condition within 30 days of the date of the invoice. Remember, if you buying directly from Asia, returns are not an option.
- Look for a track record. The longer a company has been in business, the better. Bodhisattva has been selling antique singing bowls at the museum and gallery level since 1996. Our products have been sold at the San Francisco Art Museum, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.
As with everything else, the law of supply and demand controls the market – the less there is of something, the more it will cost. If you are see antiques advertised for bargain-basement prices, be aware there’s a reason. They may not be antiques – or, often, there may be a qualitative reason the bowl is being offered cheaply. For example, in our Special Deal section, we offer antiques that are lacking in sound qualities, and therefore they are sold for much less. After all, authentic age is only one of the five criteria we use for rating a Master-quality® singing bowl: it must also have great balance of harmonics, good volume, long-lasting sustain and be easy to play.
Finally, remember that there are many wonderful, contemporary singing bowls available for very reasonable prices that need to be made into antiques for future generations. But if it’s a great quality, antique singing bowl you’re looking for now, the old adage “you get what you pay for” really applies. We welcome you to browse our Small, Medium, Large and Rare and Museum Quality galleries and be absolutely confident you’re getting among the finest, authentic antique singing bowls available in the world.