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Sotheby’s pulls Sikh armour auction

London, April 7: Sotheby’s, the London auction house, bowed today to pressure from Sikhs in the UK and India and pulled the sale of a steel armour which may or may not have once belonged to Guru Gobind Singh.

Sotheby’s had — until today — intended going ahead with the auction on Wednesday as part of its “Arts of the Islamic World” sale after insisting that the amour was not the property of the last religious head of the Sikhs.

It had said: “Sotheby’s has researched the provenance of this piece which is believed to date to the 18th century,” and “in the course of this research, Sotheby’s has not 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”.

Today, there was an about turn with the announcement that “lot 269, a Rare Sikh Steel Armour Plate, North West India/Pakistan, 18th Century (estimated at £10-12,000) has been withdrawn at the Consignor’s instruction”.

“Sotheby’s has been asked by the Consignor to arrange the acquisition of the lot by a suitable member of the Sikh community,” said the latest statement.

It was the phrasing in the auction catalogue which got Sotheby’s into trouble.

The wording was as follows: “The section (in the sale) will also include a rare 18th-century Sikh steel armour plate from North West India/Pakistan. The side plate, which is adorned with the ‘Akal Ustat’ verse and conveys the tenth Guru’s perspective on the essence of dharma and the purpose of human life, 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. Each of those plates carry inscribed verses from various compositions of the Sikh Gurus written in Gurmukhi script in gold Koftgari.”

It continued: “According to family tradition, the set was owned by tenth Guru Gobind Singh before it was presumably gifted to one of their ancestors. The existence of this plate from another charaina set suggests that the Guru commissioned more than one set. The plate has an estimate of £10,000-12,000.”

Although Sotheby’s does not actually say the armour belonged to the 10th Guru, to a Sikh follower of the Guru sitting in either Amritsar or Southall, it might appear that Gobind Singh’s property was being sold for commercial gain. To be sure, Sotheby’s has to make items offered for sale appear an enticing as possible to extract the best possible prices from prospective buyers.

Sikh protesters in India said they expected Manmohan Singh to get the armour back. They wanted it housed most appropriately in a museum at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. What would happen if the auction went ahead was not spelt out but Sotheby’s must have taken the hint.

“This auction does not augur well,” Gyaan Iqbal Singh, the chief priest of Patna Sahib Gurudwara, was quoted as saying.

“So far, they have preserved our things and should try and return them at the earliest. We would even ask the Indian government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to try and get back the armour, as it is his duty as a Sikh as well as Prime Minister of the country.”

When the Sikh protest gathered momentum, Sotheby’s did say: “We regret if our catalogue notes might not have been sufficiently clear on this point (on provenance). Should Sotheby’s receive any information that provides evidence of ownership, we will of course consider it with the utmost seriousness.”

Today, Sotheby’s clarified that the sale of the armour had been withdrawn at the request of an unidentified seller.

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