The Collector’s Minute: The Laughing Buddha Figure

A modern Chinese example of a laughing Buddha.

A modern Chinese example of a laughing Buddha.

“Laughing Buddha” is the common English name for the Buddhist figure variously known as Budai or Hotei. He is the interpretation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (translated as Mílè Fó in Chinese), the predicted Buddha who would succeed Gautama Buddha in the future. This Buddha is based on a wandering Chinese Chan monk who lived in the time of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), but he has become incorporated into Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto culture.

The Budai’s image can be found in many temples, in the form of paintings, carvings or statuary. Figurines of the happy Buddha have also been made in virtually every material from gold to bone. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname. This happy Budai has become a deity of contentment and abundance, a patron of the weak, poor and children; in more modern times he has become the patron saint of bartenders and restaurateurs.

The Hotei is generally depicted carrying a cloth or linen sack which is filled with many precious items—including rice plants (indicating abundance), candy for children, food—that never empties. In Japanese folklore, the Hotei is one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin). The Laughing Buddha is also used as a symbol of good fortune in the highly popular Feng Shui method of decorating.

The pressed seal mark on the laughing Buddha.

The pressed seal mark on the laughing Buddha.

The Laughing Buddha figures have been made for a considerable period of time. The first European copies were made by the world famous Meissen porcelain works in the mid-1700s.The example pictured here is more modern Chinese example, made during the Republic period (1912-1949). The marking on this one is a pressed seal mark often found on figures of this type and period. Values for these smiling Buddha’s vary depending on size and quality, with examples like this one selling in the $200 to $350 range at auction.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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