UK won't return treasure to India, places export ban on Tipu Sultan's jewel

Britain is looking for buyer for the gold tiger in the Sultan's throne



Photo: UK government
Photo: UK government

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 13 Nov 2021, 4:00 PM

The Boris Johnson government on Friday placed a temporary ban on the export of one of the eight gold tiger heads valued at £1.5 million that adorned the throne of Tipu Sultan in the 18th century, in the hope that a buyer could be found within the country.

Tipu Sultan, who acquired a reputation as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, was regarded as the greatest threat to the East India Company until his defeat and death in 1799. As ruler of Mysore, he identified himself and his personal possessions with tiger imagery.

The finial offers scholars the opportunity to illustrate the vibrant culture of his court and closely examine British imperial history, officials said. Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed in 1799 and several items associated with him were brought to England, some of them now based in the Clive Museum in Powis Castle in north Wales.

The finial, made of gold and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds, is a rare example of fully documented 18th century South Indian goldsmiths’ work and its existence was unknown until 2009, officials said, adding that its marble pedestal is unique among the five surviving finials known, and the meaning of its gold inscription is still a mystery.

Arts Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said, “This fascinating finial illustrates the story of Tipu Sultan’s reign and leads us to examine our imperial history. I hope a UK-based buyer comes forward so that we can all continue to learn more about this important period in our shared history with India”.

The minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which agreed that it is an important symbolic object in Anglo-Indian history in the last years of the 18th Century, with Tipu’s defeat having much historical importance to Britain’s imperial past and leading to a contemporary fascination with his story and objects.

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Committee member Christopher Rowell said, “Tipu Sultan’s golden and bejewelled throne (c.1787-93) was broken up by the British army’s Prize Agents after Tipu’s defeat and death in defence of his capital, Seringapatam, in 1799. This tiger’s head is one of the original eight which were placed on the balustrade of the octagonal throne”.

“Each gold tiger’s head from the railing is slightly differently set with gemstones, which makes this example both part of a set and unique in its design. Its quality attests to the expertise of Tipu’s goldsmiths and jewellers, in whose productions he took a close personal interest. The head of the large gold rock crystal tiger which supported the throne, and a bejewelled huma bird which perched on the pinnacle of its canopy, were presented to George III and Queen Charlotte (Royal Collection Trust). The tiger and its stripes were Tipu’s personal symbols”, he added.

The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that the finial’s departure from the UK would be a misfortune because it is so closely connected with British history and national life and is of outstanding significance for the study of royal propaganda and 18th-century Anglo-Indian history.

The decision on the export licence application for the finial will be deferred until February 11, which may be extended until June 11 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made at the recommended price of £1.5 million.


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