This month, auction house Christie’s is preparing for a unique sale that spans nearly 500 years of history and connections between the subcontinent and Europe. Maharajas And Mughal Magnificence features 400 lots, including famed diamonds, coloured stones, jewellery, swords and artefacts—all of them from the collection of the ruling family of Qatar (also called the Al Thani Collection).
Ahead of the New York sale, Christie’s auctioneer and international head of jewellery, Rahul Kadakia, was in Mumbai to share insights. Born into a family of jewellers in Mumbai, Kadakia believes gemology is in his DNA. He graduated from the Gemological Institute of America and has worked with Christie’s for 23 years. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is the significance of the sale?
There has never been an auction of this calibre or this scale before, and I believe it will never happen again. We have had Indian jewellery sales previously—the first one in 1997, dedicated entirely to Indian jewellery to celebrate 50 years of independence. We did these every two years until 2003, and then we couldn’t find quality material to put together an auction dedicated solely to Indian jewellery. Now we have almost 400 lots of the best Mughal and art deco jewels. Some of these date back to 1777, such as the Arcot Diamond. To date, the most single-owner private-collection we sold was that of (the late actor) Elizabeth Taylor in 2011, and this one is nearly a decade later.
How did you choose from the lots from the expansive Al Thani Collection?
The entire Al Thani Collection is about 6,000 lots, most of which will go on a long-term (museum) exhibition at the Hôtel de la Marine in Paris in 2020. Proceeds from the auction will go to this museum project and to the Al Thani Foundation.
We were offered a peek into the whole collection with an understanding of viewing some of the best objects of their kind, and to give institutions, and new and existing collectors, the nucleus to start their own collections.
The maharajas and Mughal jewels are at the core of what is truly a global collection. There is a jade cup (made between 1660-80 in North India) with an inscription of the Qianlong emperor because he was so inspired by the workmanship of the piece. Or a brooch shaped like an elephant with an aigrette from (Parisian jeweller) JAR. Even though it is so 21st century, so French and so modern, it ties into India.
Why do you think the contemporary collector is interested in Mughal jewels and swords?
The history. To know that there are gems and jewels that have passed through hundreds of years of history between Europe and India and the Middle East. To think of what these jewels and objects have seen and who they have been touched by. The Arcot Diamond passed from the nawab of Arcot to two kings of England.
For weapons, my sense is that this area of the auction will be more attractive to institutional buyers such as museums. They have their own weapon exhibits and they will be interested in the hilts and ceremonial swords that are in the sale.
The auction highlights stones from the Golconda mine. What is their significance?
The Golconda mine started producing stones in 1600, and, by the 1900s, it was almost done. It was one of the few mines in the entire world that was producing diamonds until it got depleted. This mine produced the Kohinoor and the Hope Diamond and the Dresden Green.
Golconda is fabled because the mine produced stones in all colours. It produced green, yellow, pink and white diamonds. So you think of how rich this mine was in minerals; it was able to produce a rainbow of colours. Most Indian jewels set with flat table-cut diamonds are from Golconda, in fact. What’s also interesting is how you can trace the stones in many of these jewels all the way back to Golconda.
Maharajas And Mughal Magnificence will be held in New York on 19 June.
A mid-17th century carved emerald
“Because green is the colour of Islam and that was the religion of the ruling dynasty of that time, green became the predominant colour of jewels. Emeralds such as this 84-carat one came from Colombia. This is the best-quality carved Mughal emerald I have seen. It is of such good quality that they could have faceted it. They chose not to, which means it was commissioned for someone very high up in the royal treasury.”
A 17th century gem-set mace
“This ceremonial mace weighs about 8kg and has a large Mughal-cut diamond set on the finial. The bottom has an emerald carved to it. This, I am almost certain, was owned by (emperors) Akbar or Jahangir.”
An early 20th century peacock aigrette
“Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala purchased this from French jewellery house Mellerio in Paris. He probably wore the aigrette on his turban at the royal wedding of King Alfonso XIII and Princess Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg in Madrid, where he met a young Spanish flamenco dancer, Anita Delgado. She became his fifth wife, and the jewel was presented to her as a gift for learning Urdu.”