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

Buyer Beware of Sikh Auctions

An examination of auction photographs of the sword offered by Mullock’s reveals a sword quite unlike any of the other known swords verified to have once belonged to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. The Mullock’s sword is of a simpler, more rudimentary design. It contains no diamonds or emeralds, or rubies or gold, or any precious element. The hilt contains a simple floral design in steel. The Mullock’s description states that this may be an earlier 18th century hilt that may have been gold plated at one time. That may indeed be the case, and the hilt may be from the earlier Mughal era, preceding the Sikh Empire. Unlike the jewelled scabbards of the swords of the maharaja preserved in various collections, the Mullock’s sword is described as having only a leather-covered scabbard.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh's sword

In terms of the Gurmukhi lettering on the sword, unlike the intricate gold lettering found on some of Ranjeet Singh’s swords and armour, the Mullock’s sword features crudely etched lettering. Illustrations on a sword blade belonging to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, in the Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Museum, in Amritsar, features a finely crafted stunning scene of various animals on the blade, created by a master craftsman. By comparison, the Mullock’s sword has a very crudely drawn, and almost cartoon-like outline of Ranjeet Singh on the blade, lacking any relief details. It clearly is not the work of a master craftsman.

The Mullock’s sword bears all the hallmarks of a sword possibly produced by a provincial craftsman for a local patron, perhaps a village chief or landlord. The craftsman many have used an older Mughal-era hilt and added a sword blade with crude letterings and illustration to the sword. It may have been commissioned by its owner as a tribute to the Maharaja, or perhaps produced as a souvenir.

Mullock’s auction description indicates there is some evidence of the handle having once been gold plated at some time in the past. Gold is typically melted or removed from jewellery or an object when the value of the gold is higher than the value of the object itself. If this really was a sword belonging to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, its value as such at any given time would have been ten-fold compared to a few ounces of melted gold. The gold would never have been removed by someone unless they knew that the sword was not particularly important or valuable. The gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious elements have never been removed from the known surviving swords of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh.

Whatever the Mullock’s swords may be, we can say with certainty that it is not consistent with the quality and craftsmanship of the surviving swords known to have belonged to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, or to members of the royal court of the Sikh Empire.

It is very important that well-meaning Sikh collectors who are doing their best, as are researchers like myself, to preserve and showcase Sikh heritage, take the extra steps necessary to ensure that they do their due diligence and consult with historians and subject-matter experts in Sikh artifacts before getting carried away in the enthusiasm and excitement of Sikh auctions.

Are the descriptions of items offered at auction houses always correct, and can they be taken as infallible? Not necessarily, I know this through my personal experience, as I have on occasion been asked by major top-tier auction houses to provide my expert opinion on specific Sikh items that they were planning to sell. In one case, they had misidentified a painting of a battle scene as being that of Sikh soldiers, when they were actually Muslim soldiers. In another case, they had erroneously described a painting as being that of a Sikh Guru, when I identified it as actually a painting of a Patiala raja. In my most recent involvement, last year, a painting purported to be that of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh was actually not the maharaja at all.

Although I don’t consider myself an expert on Sikh arms and armour, but I am happy that I have been able to contribute something to the field with the ground-breaking exhibit, “In Search of the Sikh Helmet,” launched at SikhMuseum.com, last year. To date, the research work found in the exhibit is one of the most detailed examinations of the usage of battle helmets among 19th century Sikhs, including the famed turban-helmet.

As a community we have a growing number of historians and researchers who are specialists in various aspects of our history and cultural heritage. Mullock’s is a British-based auction house, and it is ironic that two of the best subject matter experts that I can think of on Sikh arms and armour are based right there as well: Runjeet Singh, a dealer who runs Akaal Arms, and Davinder Singh Toor, a passionate collector. Both Runjeet and Davinder are great examples of the types of folks of the highest caliber subject-matter expertise that we have in our community. It is important that enthusiastic well-meaning Sikh collectors seek out such experts before investing in high profile Sikh items offed for sale at auction houses, or by dealers.

____________________

Sandeep Singh Brar is curator of SikhMuseum.com.

Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.





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