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Art

The One(s) That Got Away:
The Auction of Rani Jindan’s Earrings

SUNMIT SINGH

 

 

 





You may have heard the recent news about the auction and sale of Maharani Jindan’s earrings through Bonhams, a British auction house of art and antiquities.

To give you some background, the earrings first appeared at an auction in December 2017. I immediately knew I had discovered something amazing but I did not have the funds to acquire them. Considering the historical significance of this jewelry, I contacted several collectors of which one responded and had me bid a significant amount on his behalf. We lost the auction to an anonymous buyer but little did I know the journey of these earrings was not over.

When they suddenly reappeared in the Bonhams auction a few weeks ago, I was surprised at how quickly they had returned to the market.

A lot of hoopla was created around this particular item as people anticipated this sale. The Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara of Southall even collected a large amount of donations from the sangat to bid on the earrings with the intention of adding them to a developing exhibition on The Sikh Raj, according to their press release.

On auction day, several Sikhs were present on the auction house floor and online with the intention of bidding on the earrings. Representing Southall Gurdwara Sahib with a maximum bid of £60,000, Shamsher Singh, an activist, posted on Instagram: “Bidding on stolen Sikh artifacts has to be one of the most traumatising things I’ve ever done”.

He further explained that “if we tried to acquire these treasures the same way they did, it would have been us ripping their country in half, stealing their shit and selling it back to them”.

Shamsher Singh finally updated his Instagram after the conclusion of the auction with the hammer price and the words: “Sold to a private collector.”

People expressed their frustrations via social media at the turn of events. Sukh Sodhi tweeted “... the indignity to having to bid for your own looted treasure. Privileged Sikhs driving up prices for those trying to serve the community. Going to a private collector not the community.”

Following the auction, we learned that after being traded through many hands, they ended in the collection of a prominent Sikh collector in England.

Before we make assumptions and opinions about the unique space in which antique art and artifacts are bought and sold, it is important that we understand the context. The Sikh art and antique world is a small one with maybe a dozen or so serious Sikh collectors in the diaspora. There are collectors with deep pockets and then there are collectors on a budget.

A lesson that I have learned through my journey in this world is that there are three types of collectors: those that collect for themselves, those that collect to research and learn more about the history of the objects, and lastly, the ultimate collectors who not only collect the items, research and learn the history, but also share it with the world through books, articles, and exhibitions.

This third category of collectors increases the intellectual capital and understanding of the community of these objects and their journeys through history.

A few examples of the ultimate Sikh collectors that come to mind are Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany and Davinder Singh Toor. When a Sikh object is up for auction, they are usually the last two left bidding. Over the years, they have gone above and beyond to share their carefully curated collections with the Sikhs and with the world. Dr. Narinder Singh has donated a majority of his Sikh antiquities to the San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum where they are displayed under the rubric, Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Art.

Davinder Singh has also contributed to the Sikh antique world by leading workshops, loaning objects to prominent exhibitions, and is releasing his book, "In Pursuit of Empire: Treasures from the Toor Collection of Sikh Art," this year.

Furthermore, gurdwaras are community spaces that are significant in that they lie at the intersection of our social, political and spiritual life. It is the responsibility of those running each gurdwara to ensure that it is a place that uplifts the sangat and our causes. Not all gurdwaras participate in the preservation of our antiquities, but those that do join the fray or are looking to enter this world, should do so responsibly and thoughtfully.

It is commendable that a gurdwara in the above-described situation recognized the importance of the auction and decided to take part. They collected donations from the sangat in order to bid on the earrings but fell short in their endeavor.

Here is where acting responsibly and thoughtfully becomes important. There are several serious Sikh collectors who have spent years cultivating spaces for others such as myself to join them and have spent years on researching Sikh history, tracking down Sikh artifacts, and scavenging antique markets, auctions, and sales looking for items of interest. Many have shared stories about approaching gurdwaras to gauge interest and to encourage interest in Sikh art and antiques and were met with indifference almost every time.

Again, it is inspiring to see the Sikh community engaging and showing interest in Sikh artifacts but there is a right way to do it and the first step is to involve those who have dedicated their lives to this work, i.e., professional collectors. This is where Gurdwara Southall could have done things a bit differently and called to us to help and guide them.

Our history is rich but the antique world is so deep that to find a significant Sikh object is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. While not all Sikh artifacts are associated with well known personalities such as Maharani Jindan, the rarity of Sikh artifacts that have survived in the world make it that much important for the Sikh community to value.

They are valuable because they provide us with a glimpse into our past and help us understand a world in which our ancestors lived. Most of our surviving artifacts are not sitting in the world’s top auction houses; rather, they are in the closets and attics of random people whose families fell into ownership of these objects somewhere along the way. Almost all Sikh collectors who do this work have done so by their own efforts, without any support or recognition from the community.

Preserving our history to date is not usually considered a priority until it’s cool.

As for the commentary about “privileged Sikhs” hiking up prices and “preventing” the acquisition of these objects for the community, it is crucial to realize that currently, there are no systems in place that ensure that if an antique Sikh object was in the hands of gurdwaras, that it would be preserved professionally for generations to come.

Thus far, the Sikh community has not thought about preservation of our history, only some with a strong passion for it do, but I am hopeful that this latest chapter prompts us to wake up and become involved.

Another question is, what of the other Sikh artifacts that are bought and sold in less prominent sales and auctions that get habitually ignored? For example, recently the dhhal (shield) of Hari Singh Nalwa was sold for $125,000 and no one in the community seemed to know or care. The prices of those artifacts are more affordable and their history just as rich but it requires work and effort to find them, which those making commentary are not willing to do or even acknowledge.

If a Sikh object is in the hands of a Sikh, it is also in the community and that is important to understand. Not all Sikh objects will have household names like Rani Jindan attached to them, but they are still vital to our history and we should strive to acquire them.

As part of the Sikh antique world, I implore the Southhall Gurdwara, and any future gurdwaras or organizations that wish to acquire or learn about Sikh artifacts, to seriously consider hiring or consulting with Sikh antique collectors, which in turn also encourages those of us in the field to uphold this platform.

Many Sikh collectors could use the £60,000 to preserve, restore, and research the significant Sikh artifacts currently in their collections and more. Now that the auction is over, will the monies be returned to the sangat or kept for future unknown acquisitions?

There are important questions that need answers and decisions that need to be made in the wake of this most recent fundraising effort and auction.

For more than two decades, there has been an ongoing race among Sikh collectors to buy back lost and stolen Sikh art and artifacts. Spiritually, Sikhs can argue that these objects are just “things” or Maya, but for a quom that has fought persecution and has always been at war with the tyrants of each era, our history and its objects give us a look into the courageous roots of our sovereign identity.

Education about, interest in, and reacquisition of these artifacts of the past is paramount to building the future of the Sikh quom.


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The author, a graphic designer and printer by profession, is the founder of Inkspill Corp., a custom printing company. He, alongside his brother Tanmit Singh, founded the leading South Asian Clothing Brands Rootsgear and Turban Inc. Sunmit is an art enthusiast and an antique collector. He holds a special interest in Sikh, Punjabi and Indo-Persian Art and Arms and has been collecting Sikh art and artifacts for over a decade.



April 25, 2018

 

Conversation about this article

1: Jaswant Singh (Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA), April 26, 2018, 7:02 AM.

The earrings fetched 175,000 pounds, nearly six times the asking price. That's almost US $245,000!

2: Amandeep Singh Madra (London, United Kingdom), May 02, 2018, 3:25 AM.

The earrings will on display at an exhibition in London from 12 July - 23 Sept 2018. More information here: https://www.empireofthesikhs.com

3: Manvir Singh (London, United Kingdom), May 16, 2018, 11:40 PM.

Kudos to the collector who 'won' the items at Bonhams. While the actions of Singh Sabha Gurdwara may seem deplorable, I would argue that their intention was an impulsive and selfish use of sangat's money to ride a media frenzy surrounding the article of Jind Kaur. With no history of collecting or researching artifacts from the Sikh period, these type of blind intentions by the gurdwara committee members show how ill-informed collectors burn money (in this case, sangat's money). It has often been the case that newbies in the art world are also the ones who find themselves with having "won" a plentiful supply of fakes coming from India. The collector who ultimately purchased the items has nearly 20 years of experience in collecting art. When most of the diaspora were concerned with doubling their investments through acquiring real estate, the collector Davinder Singh Toor has made painstaking efforts to build a fine Sikh art collection. Furthermore, all the items are shared in a public space and through publications. I did have a little chuckle at Shamsher Singh's comment of it being a traumatising event- I wonder how much of his own money he had to put up? What he and much of the social media crowd fail to realize is that the earrings have been in private hands since the annexation of Punjab - for all we know the consignee could have been a Sikh! Great article.

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The Auction of Rani Jindan’s Earrings"









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