Infant Buddha

Could a Ming dynasty Buddha found near an Australian beach rewrite history?

The origins of the 15cm statue, verified as authentic on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, remain a mystery. Could it have been left there by 15th-century Chinese explorers?

In 2018, a pair of Australian film-makers were doing runs with metal detectors in remote Western Australia as they prepared to shoot a documentary about the French exploration of Australia. The film was supposed to feature a hunt for scientific equipment believed to have been left in the area by the Baudin expedition of 1800-1803.

There was no trace of Napoleonic-era exploration, but what they did find was something perhaps even more unusual.

It was 15cm-tall bronze Buddha figure, weighing just over 1kg and – according to experts – likely made in China hundreds of years ago.

In the years since their 2018 find, the film-makers, Leon Deschamps and Shayne Thomson, have been working to uncover the mystery of how the figurine ended up on a roadside in Shark Bay. They believe the Buddha might be a clue that could rewrite history, potentially suggesting that Ming dynasty explorers visited Australia hundreds of years ago.

Leon Deschamps and Shayne Thomson

‘World treasure’

Hoping to find out more about the object, the pair sought out expert advice on the British TV show, Antiques Roadshow.

In an episode that screened in the UK on Sunday, the show’s Asian art expert, Lee Young, the managing director of Dore and Rees auctioneers in Somerset, confirmed the figurine was made during China’s Ming dynasty and declared it a “world treasure”.

“Let’s clear it up straight away. Yes, it is Ming,” Young said. “And yes it is the infant Buddha. He was brought out in ceremonies to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, which is why it’s portrayed as the infant Buddha.”

According to Young, the figurine would have belonged to “someone of some standing”.

Infant Buddha

Young said the Ming dynasty piece would carry a presale estimate of £3,000 to £5,000 (A$5,000 to A$9,000). But the location it was found made it “historically incredibly important” and he would not be surprised if the hammer fell at £100,000 at an open market auction “because there is only one of these with that story”.

Ian MacLeod, a fellow of the WA Museum who has examined over 35,000 bronze objects for museums, confirmed through microscopic analysis the Buddha was “unequivocally not a forgery”.

MacLeod found that the Buddha had been buried at the spot where it was discovered between 100 and 150 years prior, and that it had been used for a considerable period of time before the burial – consistent with it dating back to the Ming period.

Deschamps said the Buddha could have been left behind by the Ming dynasty treasure fleet of 1421, which was sent out by the third Ming emperor in a display of Chinese might. Seven expeditions made up of hundreds of ships travelled through south-east Asia – even reaching the coast of Africa – but there is no documented evidence of them reaching Australia.

Most historians say it is unlikely that Chinese ships visited Australia during the Ming dynasty – which would be hundreds of years before the first European explorers in the 1600s – but the prospect has nevertheless been a source of enduring fascination.

Oldest Chinese object in Australia?

Jocelyn Chey, a visiting professor in the department of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney, said it was unlikely that the Chinese treasure fleet visited the Gascoyne area of Western Australia, if it visited Australia at all.

“It doesn’t mean because it’s 500 years old, that it came here 500 years ago,” Chey said.

“Regardless of when it came here, it must be the oldest [Chinese] object that has been discovered in Australia. That is assuming that its authenticity is confirmed.”

Paul Macgregor, a historian and curator with Our Chinese Past Inc, said he believed the two most likely scenarios were that the object arrived with the Chinese pearlers or fishermen in the 1870s or that it was deposited by someone as a hoax. Macgregor said there was no firm evidence of any Ming dynasty treasure fleet arriving in Australia.

He said that any evidence of the Buddha’s origins needs to be published so that it can be tested by other experts.

Deschamps still hasn’t found a home for the Buddha. The WA Maritime Museum didn’t want to display it when the film-makers offered it to them and their local Shark Bay Discovery Centre museum was not a suitable location due to the lack of funds to properly insure and protect the Buddha.

“Sacred objects belong with the communities they are sacred to,” Deschamps wrote in a statement on behalf of him and Thomson. “We do not consider ourselves owners of the Infant Buddha but rather custodians and we have done our utmost to show this sacred object the respect it deserves.”

Deschamps said that the pair’s film company has spent at least $50,000 on travel, laboratory research and interviews with scientists and academics trying to get to the bottom of the object’s origin.

“It is our hope the Australian government will work with the Chinese community and local Indigenous custodians to co-fund an archaeological dig at the site to help further investigate the origins of the Buddha,” Deschamps wrote.

He said they have made ongoing efforts to consult with police, local and state government, the WA Maritime Museum, various Chinese organisations, Australian archaeologists and local Indigenous elders.