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175-year-old fig leaf just sold for $660. Find out why.

This might be the world’s most fragile piece of art – a gouache painting on a Chinese fig leaf from the 19th century that had been mounted on paper. It’s just sold for $660 on AbeBooks.com.

To be accurate, it’s from a peepal tree, which is also called Ficus religiosa or the sacred fig, a tree native to South-West China and the Indian subcontinent. Sometimes known as Bodhi trees, the Peepal is strongly associated with Buddhism and monks often meditate beneath its branches.

These delicate miniature paintings were produced in the 19th century in order to satisfy demand from Europeans for Chinese art and novelties. The seller estimated that this painting was created around 1840. Very few of these Chinese leaf paintings have survived for obvious reasons. Gouache is a type of watercolor.

The painting shows a riverside scene that probably depicts the 18 Arhats, who were the original followers of Buddha. A group that followed the ‘Eightfold Path’ and attained the ‘Four Stages of Enlightenment.’ These disciples are frequently portrayed in Chinese Buddhist art. You can also see the delicate outline made by the leaf’s skeleton on the left side of the paper.

It’s hard to imagine a more fragile or fleeting piece of artwork – one gust of wind or some clumsy handling and this beautiful leaf could be gone.

There are modern artists using leaves as canvases for paintings, but will their artwork still be around in 150 years?

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