The Tiger of Mysore pounces on £434,400 at Indian & Islamic art auction

A second gem-encrusted gold finial from the octagonal golden throne of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, was sold at Bonhams New Bond Street on October 7th in the Indian & Islamic Art sale for £434,400.

This is the second such finial to pass through Bonhams Bond Street saleroom in 18 months. The first finial sold for £389,600 on 2nd April 2009. Both were at Bonhams recently, reuniting two parts of this fabled throne after 200 years, and offering Tipu scholars an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate the workmanship of these objects.

These finials are among the most important Tipu items ever to appear at auction.  The one sold today (October 7 2010) was in the possession of the same Scottish family for the past 200 years coming down to the present owner by direct descent.

The first finial sold at Bonhams had lain in an English castle, for at least 100 years and then in a bank vault, unknown to Tipu enthusiasts and scholars.  It was discovered by Bonhams Islamic Department on a routine valuation.

Sold as a separate but related lot in this sale was the remarkable eyewitness account by Benjamin Sydenham of the battle which led to the final destruction of Tipu Sultan and his forces.

It is addressed to Earl Macartney and is immaculately written in a copperplate script in 1799. It recounts in some 50 pages the story of the end of the Tiger of Mysore. This extraordinary written survival was estimated to sell for £10,000 to £15,000 but made £86,400.

Sydenham describes the death of Tipu Sultan by a number of wounds encountered in the battle for Seringapatam. The Sultan left a meal to lead his troops against the British storming the fort and died after being shot and bayoneted.

His dead body was described as: "wounded a little above the right ear, and the ball lodged in the left cheek, he had also three wounds in the body, he was in stature about 5'8" and not very fair, he was rather corpulent, had a short neck and high shoulders, but his wrists and ankles were small and delicate.

"He had large full eyes, with small arched eyebrows and very small whiskers. His appearance denoted him to be above the Common Stamp. And his countenance expressed a mixture of haughtiness and resolution.

"He was dressed in a fine white linen jacket, chintz drawers, a crimson cloth round his waist with a red silk belt and pouch across his body. He had lastly his turban and there were no weapons of defence about him."

Tipu Sultan's story has made inspired more than one re-telling on screen

Tipu Sultan was the East India Company's most tenacious enemy. A fanatical and relentless warrior, he vowed not to mount his elaborate throne until he had vanquished the British.

Tipu is considered to be one of the most accomplished and daring rulers of pre-colonial India, devising campaigns which inflicted humiliating defeats on the British and reversing Western weapons and techniques against their inventors. 

It is believed that he introduced the military rocket to attack enemy infantry, a tactic that helped him win a number of victories over British armies, undercutting the view that they were invincible. 

In Tipu's own words, he said: "I would rather live one day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep".  He customised objects of art and instruments of warfare with tiger-stripe motifs, from his throne to canons and blunderbusses. When travelling away from his kingdom, he even wore a coat with the motif.

Although some of the most important items from Tipu Sultan's palace were reserved for the British Royal Family, the famous golden throne was broken up so that the elements could be shared, much to the disapproval of the Governor-General, Lord Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington).

The throne was broken up so quickly following the fall of Seringapatam that little is known about the fate of the remaining throne relics; however, a large gold tiger head from the front of the throne platform now resides at Windsor Castle along with a jewelled bird which was presented to Queen Charlotte the wife of George III. Another surviving finial can be found at Powis Castle, acquired by the second Lady Clive in India.

Gem set gold finial tiger
Gem set gold finial tiger

Claire Penhallurick of Bonhams Indian and Islamic Department comments: "It is an extraordinary privilege to have sold a second such wonderful finial from Tipu Sultan's throne. To sell one is amazing, but to have two in less than two years is almost unbelievable.

"These items are without doubt, of the greatest historical significance as they belong to the most important symbolic object in Tipu Sultan's kingdom, his throne, which he refused to mount until he had defeated the British.

"It holds huge fascination for both India and Britain as it is part of our shared history, and as Tipu Sultan was such an extraordinary man and certainly one of the most creative, innovative and capable rulers of the pre-colonial period, it is an important discovery for this field."



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