The Sikh Armour and the Auction House

Last week I read about Sotheby’s upcoming auction on 9 April 2008, where up for sale is Lot No. 269, “A Rare Sikh Steel Armour Plate, North West India/Pakistan, 18th Century” that might have once belonged to the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708).

Sotheby’s catalogue mentions –

“This side plate is virtually identical to a single plate in a complete set of charaina (back, front and two side plates) in the collection of the royal house of Patiala in Punjab….. The existence of this plate from another charaina set points to the possibility that the Guru commissioned more than one such set.”

What struck me first was that the armor is being offered in Sotheby’s ‘Arts of the Islamic World’ sale – how did a Sikh artifact get included in the Islamic category? – Sikhism is after all far removed from Islam.

Next issue was religion. It’s rather crucial here in India – over-done crucial even – and I didn’t expect the Sikh community to react positively to the sale. They had been displeased in April 2007 when Bonham’s auctioned the bust of Maharaja Duleep Singh – and this was an even more sensitive matter – to have a relic belonging to their revered Guru up for auction was going to be nothing short of deeply and profoundly offensive.

A quick look around the net, as well as in the national newspapers, showed they were roiled up alright. There was an on-going online petition to halt the sale, there were heated comments on online forums, there were calls to pool money to bid on the armour, there were protest agitations in several Indian cities and Sikh religious leaders wrote to religious and political leaders in India and Britain to intervene and stop the Sotheby’s auction.

At this point Sotheby’s backtracked on their statement about the possibility of the Guru having commissioned more than one set.

Sotheby’s spokesman Simon Warren said, “It is important that you know that Sotheby’s does not consider the Sikh armour plate to be a relic of Guru Gobind Singh, as our cataloguing and estimate clearly indicate. I can also tell you we believe that complaints about the proposed offering are based on a misreading of Sotheby’s cataloguing, which points to a stylistic similarity to a full set of armour in the possession of the Patiala royal family which the family attributes to Guru Gobind Singh.”

He didn’t say how they know for sure it didn’t belong to the Guru. Guru Gobind Singh engaged in many wars with the Mughals and the Sivalik Hill Kings, and he may very well have commissioned several armours. Sotheby’s must make clear how exactly they came by the armour, or at least allow an independent verification.

It isn’t enough saying that they have “undertaken due diligence to verify the provenance of this piece, believed to date to the 18th Century” and that not having “found or been given any evidence to indicate ownership of this piece by Guru Gobind Singh … we therefore do not deem the piece to be a relic of the Guru.”

If it had belonged to the Guru, their spokesman informed news reporters, we would be offering it for a much higher sum than just 10,000 pounds – more like 150,000 or 300,000, apparently.

The Sikhs are unimpressed. Their religious relics, they say, are priceless and cannot be bartered in auction houses. They ask what the reactions would be amongst the Christians if, say, Sotheby’s decided to auction off the Shroud of Turin next – never mind that it is probably not an original either – or the Holy Grail, if they got their hands on that somehow.

In that case, my guess is, we could look forward to a new Crusade. Westward Ho!

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