Tuesday June 27, 2017 11:53 AM EST

Sandeep Singh Brar | Toronto, Canada
Posted: 12:29 PM | April 10, 2014

Buyer Beware of Sikh Auctions

First, a little bit of background on auction houses selling Sikh artifacts. In terms of selling Sikh artifacts, Mullock’s would be considered a third-tier auction house. Sotheby’s and Christies are the two largest powerhouses in the first-tier that usually sell very important and high priced Sikh artifacts, typically in the $10,000 to $50,000+ range. Bonhams would be considered in the second-tier in this hierarchy. Their Sikh artifacts typically sell in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, excluding the Duleep Singh bust, of course. Then you have third-tier auction houses, like Mullock’s. The Sikh artifacts that they sell are typically in the few hundred dollars to $3,000 range. Mullock’s would be considered one tier above eBay in terms of the types of Sikh artifacts that they sell and valuations realized.

It was quite surprising to see a “sword of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh,” such an important Sikh artifact, being offered by a third-tier auction house that normally deals with Sikh items worth a few hundred to few thousand dollars. You would expect the “sword of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh” to be put up for auction by its seller at a more high profile international auction house, like Sotheby’s or Christies, to maximize its sale potential. It seemed a bit odd.

I am concerned and hope that the euphoria and excitement surrounding the auction of the “sword of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh” is not the “Guru Gobind Singh armour” auction fiasco being repeated.

A careful reading of the Mullock’s auction catalogue description of the sword reveals that it never states the sword belonged to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. No provenance is provided in the description connecting its past ownership to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh or the royal court of the Sikh Kingdom. All the catalogue description says is: “India Punjab – Sword inscribed Maharajah Ranjeet Singh – early 19th century Northern India curved tulwar sword inscribed in Punjabi script inside the hilt, “Akal Sahai Ranjeet Singh Lahore” and dated.” Furthermore, the description mentions an engraving depicting the maharaja on the blade with the label, “Ranjeet Singh,” in Gurmukhi, below the image.

Somewhere and somehow, someone made a jump and connected this sword with actual ownership by the maharaja. Yet no such connection has been made anywhere in the description of the sword by Mullock’s. Once that connection was made, and the media and social media started the hype that the “sword of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh” was being offered for sale at auction, Sikh collectors around the world became excited and began a frenzied global bidding war.

Let’s take a moment to step back and look at swords that we know were owned by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Fortunately, there are a number of surviving examples with full provenance in various museum collections around the world. I know of four such swords, and I am sure there are a few more in other museums and private collections.

One of the swords belonging to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, which he presented to Captain Robert Browne, has an exquisite jade handle with rubies set in gold, for eyes. In the center of the quillion is a miniature portrait on ivory of the maharaja that is adorned with rubies. The steel blade is decorated with finely executed hunting scenes, while the scabbard is richly embellished with rubies and emeralds in a gold setting. This sword is in the Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Museum, in Amritsar.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

Another sword belonging to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, which he used during the conquest of Kasur, in 1807, has a richly decorated hilt with intricate gold koftgiri floral decorations, with an inscription in gold lettering in a cartouche on the blade. The hilt contains semi-precious stones. This sword is in the Central Sikh Museum, in Amritsar.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

Another sword belonging to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh is in the Wallace Collection, in England. It features a handle of rare and exotic walrus ivory, imported at tremendous cost from northern Europe. The sword also features gold, agate, pearls and semi-precious stones, and a scabbard of gold.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

Another of the Maharaja’s swords has a golden hilt studded with rubies and emeralds and a scabbard of gold work. It is kept in the Tosakhana treasury at the Darbar Sahib complex, in Amritsar.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

Besides these four swords, there is also a sword that belonged to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s general, General Allard, in a private collection. It has an exquisite handle of ivory and gold with embedded precious stones. This sword is representative of the typical types of swords found at the Maharaja’s royal court.

All of these surviving swords that belonged to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh have one thing in common: Although they may be different types of swords, one a shamshir, another a tulwar, for example, they all are bejewelled items of the highest craftsmanship imaginable - befitting a monarch.

The late Dr. Leo S. Figiel, a San Francisco-based collector, spent a lifetime building one of the finest collections of swords belonging to the various maharajas and rulers of South Asia. Many researchers regard the auction catalogue of his vast collection, published by auction house, Butterfield, in 1998, as one of the great reference works on the swords of India (Egerton and G.N. Pant come to mind as two other important reference works). Flipping through Dr. Figiel’s auction catalogue, one finds the exquisite craftsmanship and the heights of the sword makers’ art that was demanded by these maharajas for their personal swords. The verified surviving swords of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh are all entirely consistent with the high degree of craftsmanship and decorative art found in Dr. Figiel’s auction catalogue.

The maharajas’ swords, like those owned by Ranjeet Singh, were an expression of their authority through the magnificence of finely crafted art pieces that also were functional weapons. Their swords were a status symbol, and no ordinary looking sword would do for a maharaja. It had to be outstanding. All of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s swords were covered with gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and exotic materials, including jade and ivory. Any engraving or lettering on the hilt or blade was of the highest precision. Even the scabbard of the sword was decorated with gold and precious stones.

Corroborating the physical swords of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh that still survive, we also have a handful of paintings of the maharaja that are known to have actually been painted during his lifetime. They clearly show his swords in the portraits. Although, we today, have many 19th century paintings of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, many of them are dated to a time period after his death. Maharaja Ranjeet Singh was very conscious of the small pox that marred his face and right eye, and seldom allowed himself to be painted. Of these rare early paintings, any that show the maharaja’s sword typically show him wearing a decorative gold and jewelled sword with a similarly decorated scabbard.

For example, there is a wonderful painting of Ranjeet Singh standing, completed between 1815 and 1820, which clearly shows the details of his jewelled and gold sword. Another painting, dated 1830, shows the maharaja on his throne with a decorative sword and a katar-punch dagger. Both of these priceless paintings are preserved in the British Library. What about when the maharaja was younger? The earliest known painting of the maharaja, dated to 1810, shows his meeting the Maratha Chief Jaswant Rao. It also clearly shows a highly decorated and jewelled sword with scabbard in his hands. This painting also is in the British Library.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

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