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NEW YORK—If Indiana Jones had been a student of Tibetan Buddhism, he might have turned out to be Moke Mokotoff.
Mokotoff lives in New York now, working as a private art dealer, like so many others in the city’s enterprising art community. But he has lived many lives—as a National Geographic photographer training scholars to preserve manuscripts on the Nepal–India border, as a fundraiser for a Tibetan lama’s dream school, and as a builder of the Rubin, one of the most respected Himalayan art museums in the country. Yet no incarnation has taken him far from the sacred lands of Buddhism.
Mokotoff has studied Tibetan Buddhism for over 40 years, under the tutelage of Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche, who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion, taking with him a number of treasured sacred objects. To realize Lama Rinpoche’s dream of establishing a Tibetan Buddhist center in the Berkeley hills, Mokotoff helped him raise $75,000 by selling the objects—mostly textiles—to the Metropolitan Museum and the Newark Museum. That sum seems a pittance now, given the increased understanding of and interest in Himalayan art.
“Most Westerners are attracted to Buddhism mostly through the art, and have an emotional reaction to the art,” he said, explaining that the art itself is integral to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. “The thangkas (devotional wall hangings) are meditation objects. All the artistic renderings are all based on meditations and prayer.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, art is hardly ever purely decorative. Statues depict deities and the major buddhas; wall hangings narrate the life of the Buddha, serve as meditation aids, and illustrate concepts; ritual objects such as bowls and bells help the monks and nuns reach enlightenment. Mokotoff knows all this from firsthand experience, having immersed himself in the art in-situ, which is crucial to his work as an appraiser and art dealer.
“Usually collectors don’t have access to the cultural context of the artwork,” he said. “In Tibet, monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, so it’s difficult. The new icons are different.”
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the Chinese themselves have become a large proportion of Mokotoff’s clients.
“The Chinese have had access to concepts and philosophies of Buddhism through their language and their cultural upbringing,” he said. “Demand among mainland Chinese has increased because they are aware of how rare these artworks are and that they have survived destruction.”
Lucky for Mokotoff, his clients are as enthusiastic about, and as fascinated by, Buddhist art as he is.
“They are buying for the long term to put in their shrines as a beautiful object,” he said. “My experience is that they are very reverential. I like dealing mostly with people who appreciate their Buddhist content. It’s my greatest thrill.”
For the remainder of Asia Week, Mokotoff will be holding gallery hours at 5 East 82nd Street, 2nd Floor, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m, untiil March 23.
In 1997, Mokotoff helped Donald Rubin found the Himalayan Art Resources website, which was the largest virtual art museum at the time. The website helps viewers of Himalayan art recognize its conventions and motifs, and deepen their understanding of Tibetan Buddhist paintings and sculpture.
Mokotoff is also the president of the Zangdokpalri Foundation, an NGO serving the needs of Buddhist communities in the Himalayas.
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