Wähäjärvi Brought the Silk Road to Riihimäki

[WED MAY 17 2017; B8-B9; ’Wähäjärvi toi silkkitien Riihimäelle,’ Tuulia Viitanen]


* A 3000-year-old sacrificial chalice was found in the storage space of the Riihimäki Art Museum.

* More than 200 Chinese antique items have been inspected in the museum.


So far, over 200 Chinese items have been waiting for their time in the storage space. Now, the art historian specialized in Southeast Asian Buddhist art, Irene Wai Lwin Moe, has finally been able to bring out the items to study their history.

The collection of antique salesman Pentti Wähäjärvi (1912-1999) came to the Riihimäki Art Museum in the 1990s. The paintings were the first to arrive, and later came more miscellanious items.

– The Asian items had names, but the museum people didn’t know much about them, says museum assistant Tanja Pääskynen.

Wähäjärvi had bought items mainly from Swedish auctions. Under one beautiful statue, Wähäjärvi had written with a shaky hand: ”Never to be sold for money.” He had also written it had been bought in Bukow, probably meaning Bukowski.

Irene Wai Lwin Moe and museum assistant Tanja Pääskynen figure Wähäjärvi had put the collection together without knowing its worth.

– He probably made decisions based on aesthetics rather than the origin or age of the item. He most likely knew at least some of them were valuable.


Surprises have been found among the items. The largest of them is a sacrificial chalice over 3000 years old. Traditionally, the bronze chalice was placed in a grave and filled with food.

– This has likely been bought by accident. This chalice has been at the grave of a person of significant wealth.

For comparison, Wai Lwin Moe points out a more recent, ”retro” chalice that emulates the 3000-year-old one.

Grave sculptures have also been surprising finds. They are from the Tang dynasty (618-907). China still retains the tradition of making sculptures of servants and animals to be buried with the dead. Previously these items had been made of bronze or ceramics, in modern times they are made of paper so they can be burned.


– A Buddha statue is worth more in pieces, Wai Lwin Moe laughs.

This idea is visible in Wähäjärvi’s collection. The wooden Bodhisattva Guanyin, also from the Tang dynasty, is one of Taoism’s eight immortal figures. The head of the large statue has been severed. The earrings, arms, and torso have also been severed.

There is no buddha among the items. That is because of Chinese culture. Items have been made only of bodhisattvas, because they are reincarnated and benevolent, and they can be asked for help. Buddha cannot be asked for help.


Information about the items in Pentti Vähäjärvi’s collection has been scarce. Wai Lwin Moe’s mission has been to identify the items and approximate their age.

Now that all of the items have been studied, they can be exhibited in the museum. A publication detailing the origins of and stories behind the items is also in the works.

– I want the stories to create a whole that explores both ancient traditions and modern day China, says Wai Lwin Moe.

Studying the items has been a return to the past for Wai Lwin Moe, as she has been interested in Asia since she was little, and she has spent a great deal of her life there.

– The items are beautiful, with all these little details. In China, art is made by artisans, not artists. Standards of beauty have changed along with the dynasties. This makes it easier to estimate the age of the items.


The exhibition of the Southeast Asian antiques opens in June.


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