It’s not every day that a vast number of museum-quality jewels hailing from a single, world-famous collection finds its way under the hammer. So collectors’ eyes are fixed on Christie’s New York, where nearly 400 lots from the encyclopaedic Al Thani collection – among the gem world’s most celebrated and coveted collections – cross the block this month. Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence, on June 19, spans more than five centuries of imperial Mughal empire jewels, and is set to be the most valuable collection of Mughal objects and jewellery ever to be auctioned.
The collection, described by Christie’s international head of jewellery, Rahul Kadakia, as “living history”, shines a light on the royals’ resplendent lifestyle. There are spectacular sarpechs (including a fabulous feathered number with old baguette and pear-shaped diamonds – $1.2m-$2.2m estimate – that has been exhibited at The Met and the V&A), as well as extravagantly embellished functional objects: a late-16th-century gold pen case and inkwell ($1.5m-$2.5m), a symbol of power at court and a Baroda pearl canopy (c1865-1870; $800,000-$1.2m) set with 950,000 Basra pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and coloured-glass beads in swirling floral arabesques.
Falconry was a beloved Mughal pastime and a stunning 1775-1825 enamel and gem-set parrot ($350,000-$500,000) from Hyderabad pays homage to the sport. Encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, the sculpture is finished with an emerald that hangs from the bird’s beak. Elsewhere, leaf-shaped rubies ring a pair of splendid, early-19th-century jade falcon bracelets ($10,000-$15,000).
Those familiar with the Al Thani collection will know its reputation for excellent, historic daggers – and most significant in the sale is the super-minimalist 1620-1630 piece with a European-style carved jade head ($1.5m-$2.5m) that once belonged to Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, and has graced The Met, the V&A, Beijing’s Palace Museum and Paris’s Grand Palais. On the other side of the embellishment spectrum is a 1700-1725 jade-hilted dagger ($800,000-$1.2m) from northern India, its handle punctuated with Mughal-motif rubies, which comes paired with a beautifully vibrant and rare velvet-covered wooden scabbard. Finally, a 1790-1810 lion-headed beast dagger ($500,000-$700,000), from either Tanjore or Mysore, is especially characterful. With diamonds, cabochon rubies and emeralds, the piece is a masterclass in the Indian goldsmithing art of kundan, which allows for very intricate gem-setting.
Gem purists will be indulged too. There are several incredible diamonds hailing from the famous, fruitful and now closed Golconda mine. The superbly luminous and transparent Mirror of Paradise, a 52.58ct rectangular-cut D-colour diamond, will be fanatically watched on sale day with its $7m-$10m estimate. Meanwhile, the Arcot II ($2m-$4m) – a 17.21ct pear-shaped beauty – oozes royal history: one of a pair of ear drops that were given by the Nawab of Arcot to King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, the stone was later owned by the Marquess of Westminster and subsequently set into the tiara that Queen Elizabeth II wore for her coronation.
Indian imperial jewellery has historically fused east and west, thanks in part to venerable European maisons such as Cartier, whose founder was frequently found on the subcontinent, seeking either creative inspiration or royal clients. A star lot of the sale will be the jaw-dropping belle époque diamond devant-de-corsage brooch ($10m-$15m), featuring over 67cts of diamonds cut across brilliant, oval and marquise shapes. Elsewhere, a fabulous art-deco belt-buckle brooch ($500,000-$700,000) is centred on a whopping 38.71ct octagonal emerald flanked by an architectural fan of diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. Also from that period is the divine Patiala ruby choker ($800,000-$1.2m), commissioned in 1931 by one of Cartier’s most enthusiastic clients, the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. The jeweller’s single-strand necklace ($1m-$1.5m) of 37 graduated natural pearls is extremely rare.
There are also contemporary twists on the collection’s theme – notably JAR’s delightful 2013 sapphire and titanium brooch ($100,000-$150,000) of an elephant wearing an aigrette, complete with tusk-shaped white cacholong.