In Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India, a spectacular glossary of the luxuries that Indian royal families enjoyed, author Amin Jaffer chronicles how the lifestyle of the Maharajas stunned two visiting British artists in the early 20th century.
“The artist Valentine Prinsep was overwhelmed to see that in dressing Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore it took no less than six men, four of whom ‘stand around with trays, on which are displayed jewels worth I do not know how many lacs.’ The artist Emily Merrick found that Maharaja Rana Nihal Singh of Dholpur was a ‘blaze of jewels’ wearing £300,000 (Rs25.5 crore) worth of treasure, of which he was exceptionally proud,” writes Jaffer.
‘Magnificent Jewels’, an auction at Christie’s, New York, on 25 April, will prove how much one of these pieces is worth today.
The piece de resistance going under the hammer is a two-strand necklace, made of 68 large, natural pearls which Maharaja Khande Rao Gawkwar is believed to have sourced from the Gulf in the early 20th century. Christie’s qualifies it as “the most important natural-pearl necklace to be ever seen at an auction.”
How the Baroda pearls have reached Christie’s jewellery chest is a mystery. The auction house’s head of jewellery for Christie’s Americas, Rahul Kadakia, did not disclose who its last owner was. “The original, seven-strand necklace was the masterpiece of all pearl collections of the Maharajas. Now, with its antique value and still sparkling texture, it encapsulates everything the modern collector expects,” Kadakia says.
For years, the present heirs of the Baroda family—Ranjitsinh Gaekwar and Sangramsinh Gaekwar—have been fighting over the family’s surviving property. About a week after Christie’s announced the auction, Sangramsinh Gaekwar, the younger scion, claimed that the necklace is disputed property and Christie’s auctioning it would amount to violating the Antiques Act. But Christie’s confirms that they are going ahead. “As a policy, Christie’s does not disclose the identity of our consignors. Regarding the upcoming April sale of the two-strand Baroda pearl necklace, we believe that our consignor’s purchase of the property and the export of the property from India were lawfully and appropriately accomplished,” a statement from the auction house said.
The history known so far: In 1943, the necklace passed into the hands of Rani Sita Devi, wife of Maharaja Pratapsingh Gaekwar of Baroda. She was known for her flamboyance and love for jewels (The Western media once called her “the Indian Wallace Simpson”.) Around that time, the royal family moved to a mansion in Monte Carlo. Later on, Sita Devi and Gaekwar got divorced and the erstwhile queen decided to keep the Baroda Pearls with her. In the 1950s, the Indian government summoned the Maharaja back to the country to investigate his alleged anti-India activities, and he brought the pearls with him. The necklace was last seen around Sita Devi’s neck in 1948. She also owned a diamond necklace made of two Brazilian diamonds, the 128.8 carat Star of the South and a 78.53 carat English Dresden.
The auction also features a 24.69 carat diamond ring by Bvlgari, a Kashmir sapphire and other jewels and art deco vanity cases from collections all over the world.