Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

29.4.04

Robert Clive's Stolen Treasures

In an article (Beauty and the Power of Myth, April 28) in the International Herald Tribune, Souren Melikian covers the auction (Islamic Art and Manuscripts Including Property from the Theodor Sehmer and Heidi Vollmoeller Collections And The Clive of India Treasure, at Christie's in London on April 27: the extensive picture gallery has images of many of the lots) of, among other things, artwork belonging to the descendants of the English imperial adventurer Robert Clive:Christie's Sale 6895, Lot 156: A Mughal ruby and emerald inset gold and silver lined jade covered flask from North India, 1st half of the 17th century, estimated at £800,000 to 1,200,000

The most spectacular work of art from the Persianized world of Islamic India ever to appear at auction, a 17th-century jade wine flask studded with rubies and emeralds set in gold, was sold Tuesday at Christie's for a staggering £2.91 million, or about $5.2 million. The buyer was not identified. The price paid for the object, which can be shown to have been made under Emperor Jahangir (1605–1627)—even though the cataloguer dates it more broadly within the first half of the 17th century—reflects the splendor of the material and even more so the power of myth.

The wine flask was consigned by the descendants of Robert Clive, the soldier of fortune who defeated the ruler of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, paving the way for the English colonial conquest of the Indian subcontinent.
Where and how Clive acquired this treasure is not at all clear. As Melikian recounts, an object that seems similar to the flask is listed in the inventory of property drawn up in 1775, after Robert Clive, the so-called Conqueror of India and opium addict, committed suicide. It has belonged since to his heirs and the family property, Powis Castle in Wales. (This castle was in Welsh hands until it was inherited by Sir Edward Herbert in the 16th century. The last Herbert descendant died bankrupt, but his sister had married Robert Clive's son and the Clive fortune rescued the castle from destruction.)
One may surmise that the flask and, conceivably, other objects consigned by the Clive descendants (in particular, an agate flywhisk with a garnet top and a dagger with a jade handle set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds) were all once part of the imperial treasury of the Mogul dynasty. No trace remains of this treasury, nor indeed of any of the imperial household possessions that all perished in the plunder, colonial or not, which invariably accompanies wars of conquest.

Today, the wine flask is unique. The two flasks now in the Hermitage Museum that the catalogue places in the same category significantly differ in shape and decorative pattern, and seem to be later. The attraction of the unique proved irresistible as it does in every other area of an art market increasingly starved for top quality objects.
The family has loaned this object to the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1963, and the museum had assumed that it would eventually receive it permanently. Under British law, national museums have special prerogatives over art objects, like this flask, that have had a place in British history. However, private collectors in the Mideast drove up the price and ultimately had the winning bid, which the Victoria and Albert Museum must now match if it wishes to hold on to this incredible piece. The stage is set for a political showdown over which region's history has precedent in this case: Pakistan, India, Persia, or Great Britain?

Naturally, David Nishimura at Cronaca is already way ahead of me on this story (Clive's Mughal Loot Sells High, April 27), but that's no surprise.

No comments: