Patiala on your Plate

Jul 09, 2013, 10:30 IST | Amit Roy

A silver Patiala dinner service fetches a record $3m in two minutes flat at Christie's London auction.

Amit Roy
London, July 6

Lot number 15 in Christie’s “Exceptional Sale” came up for bidding at its auction rooms in King Street, Mayfair, precisely at 7.24 pm (London time) on Thursday. The auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s (Europe, Middle East, Russia and India), introduced the dinner service which
had once belonged to Maharajah Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patiala as “magnificent” and started the ball rolling at £700,000. The lot comprised 1,400 separate items, solid silver gilded in gold, but were being sold as a single dinner service. For the uninitiated, the bidding process was bewildering and dizzy: “£700,000..... £800,000...” On the screen were the figures in various currencies -- pounds, dollars, euros but no desi rupees, alas -- and an image of the impressive centerpiece of the service.

How Maharajahs dined: The Patiala dinner service sold on July 4. It was part of the service shown off at a Christie’s party

It had been made to the Maharajah’s order in 1921 by the Goldsmiths’ and Silversmiths’ Company in London (later bought by Garrard) and shipped across to Patiala in time for a one off use by Bhupinder Singh who was having a very special guest to dinner -- Edward, the then Prince of Wales. The menu is not known but the Royal kitchens must have worked overtime to produce a banquet fit for a future king of England. All that is being divulged is that an attempt was made to auction the service in the 1970s but it was unsold. It was bought privately some years later and was being offered now as “the property of a gentleman”.

Jussi jaise koi nahin: Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, President of Christie's Europe, Middle East, Russia and India, conducts the bidding for the Maharajah's dinner service

Experts at Christie’s -- Harry Williams-Bulkeley, senior director, European head of silver department, and Amin Jaffar, international director of Asian Art -- had estimated the sale price would fall between £1m and £1.5m. Who would buy such a service? An Arab sheikh? Lakshmi Mittal? One of the modern Maharajahs of corporate India such as Mukesh Ambani? A Bollywood star for use in a future blockbuster? In the auction room, within 60 seconds or so, the bid had got to a cool million pounds.

From the album: The Prince of Wales on a visit to India in 1922

Williams-Bulkeley has almost brought Bhupinder Singh (1891-1938) to life: “The Maharajah was a great hero of British school children. He used to go to Lord’s and watch the cricket there. He was a great cricketer. He was always besieged for autographs. He was always incredibly good at giving his autographs, so much so he would end up with writer’s cramp. I love the idea that he had the first aeroplane and he started the Patiala Aviation Club. It must have been: ‘number of members: one’. He had over 20 Rolls-Royces. At one point, he had a falling out with them because they wouldn’t do something for him and they had to send an envoy out to apologise and placate him.”

Oh so sterling, really: Table for 2,3,4…

As ruler, he was surprisingly popular despite his wild extravagance: “He was a monarch of the people more than anyone had been before. He came to the UK a great deal and had a strong profile in the UK. It (his visits) was very well reported. When I put his name into The Times index, there were endless entries with him going to Ascot or Lord’s.”

Shell, well, well: Harry Williams-Bulkeley picks out a favourite piece

Williams-Bulkeley picked up one of the items from the dinner service: “The most distinctive are the shell shaped baskets. The general form is from the 1740s of English silver but they added the elephant on the handle and added Indian inspired ornaments and then a royal lion’s mask and then the Maharajah’s coat of arms. The English ones tend to have dolphin feet but these have lion’s paws.”

Expert ease: Christie's experts: (from left) Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Art, and Harry Williams-Bulkeley, senior director, European Head of Silver department

Jaffar, meanwhile, who has written several books on Indian art, said: “I have signed off my next book which is a book on Indian jewellery -- it starts with the Mughal period down to contemporary. It will be launched in London on November 6. The irony is I published this ( a reference to the dinner service) in my Made for Maharajas book. I had no idea then I would see this set. I never thought we would have the honour to be handling it.”

The man, the millions: Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala

The Maharajah of Patiala probably used the service only once. He was keen to make a good impression on the Prince of Wales who was undertaking quite an extensive tour of India in 1921-22. In December 1921, the Prince of Wales was in Calcutta, then the seat of the British Raj. Though the Amritsar massacre had taken place in 1919, there was an assumption that the sun would never set on the British Empire and the Raj would last forever. The Maharajah was keen to demonstrate the old Indian tradition -- Atithi devo bhava (guest is God).

According to all the research done by Christie’s, the Prince of Wales “travelled to Patiala by train arriving at 8.30 am on the morning of the 22nd February. The Maharajah and a large reception party met him, the royal suite was then escorted by the State cavalry to the Moti Bagh Palace through streets lined with people. 

“On his arrival at the palace the Prince reviewed the troops and then, accompanied by the Maharajah, ventured out on his horse into the huge crowd which included some 10,000 former soldiers who had served in the First World War,” the notes add. “This part of the Prince’s tour was partly intended as a restful time for the Prince and after the review there was no official timetable. The Maharajah entertained the Prince with polo matches, pig sticking, and shooting. The dinners were small and the dances informal. Only on the last evening was a large event held. The State Banquet for 200 people (on February 24), for which this dinner service was commissioned, was a lavish send-off for the Royal guest who departed for Lahore by train at 11 pm that evening following the dinner.”

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Bhupinder Singh, who clearly wanted to ingratiate himself with the future King of England, need not have bothered. Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (23 June 1894 - 28 May 1972), the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, was created Prince of Wales on his 16th birthday. He became Edward VIII in 1936. But he was “King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, and Emperor of India” only from January 20 to December 11, 1936.

He was never crowned. He abdicated when told by the cabinet he could not remain king if he insisted on marrying an American divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson. So that big dinner in 1922 hosted by His Highness was an expensive but ultimately unnecessary investment.

The dinner service is so extensive that before the sale only the most eye catching items could be displayed on a long table. In a nearby anteroom, the rest of the service was piled into wooden compartments.

The centrepiece of the service is described thus: “Formed as three bowls supported on shaped conforming stand, the flower and foliage decorated feet applied with cast elephant’s mask, the handles of the bowls with cast lion’s masks”.

There is a set of four five-light candelabra, “each on four lion’s paw feet, the stands applied with cast elephant masks”.

There is a pair of soup-tureens, covers and ladle, “with lion’s mask-capped handles, the detachable covers with quatrefoil ogee loop handles”.

And so it goes on and on: “two centrepiece-bowls, each oval and with lion’s mask-capped handles and on four lion’s paw feet”; “a set of three meat dish covers, each oval with a quatrefoil ogee loop handle”; “a set of 148 dessert plates, each shaped circular, the border cast with animals in medallions surrounded by flowers, further cast with initials and a crown”; “183 dinner plates, each shaped circular, the border cast with animals in medallions surrounded by flowers, further cast with initials and a crown”; “a set of 18 mustard pots and 18 mustard spoons, each on circular spreading foot with lion mask-capped scrolling handles, the hinged cover with bud finial, each marked underneath and inside cover”; and “43 finger bowls, each circular on conforming base”. Then there are: “166 table forks; 111 dessert forks; 111 dessert spoons; 21 table spoons.....”

After a while, it must have got exhausting for royal staff to keep a check on the service, let alone doing the washing up. The odd numbers indicate some items either got pinched (perhaps even by the Prince’s party) or mislaid.

In the auction room on Thursday, Pylkkänen’s demeanour was brisk: “£1.1m .... £1.2m.... £1.3m...”

The bidding got to £1.4m, then £1.5m, then £1.6m. At £1.7m, Pylkkänen brought down the hammer. Seller’s and buyer’s premium and value added tax are payable on top. The time was 7.26pm. From start to finish, the process had taken a roller coaster two minutes.

There was a formal announcement from Christie’s that the dinner service “sold for £1,965,875 ($2,995,994), setting a new world auction record for an English dinner service. Expected to sell for £1-1.5million, it was bought in the room by a private collector who did not wish to be identified.” 

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