An 18th century pearl carpet of Baroda - the world's most expensive rug - made for the maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwad, as a gift for the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad at Medina in Saudi Arabia, went under hammer at a Sotheby's auction in Doha yesterday for $5.5 million
This disposal of priceless Indian heirlooms comes close on the heels of the highly controversial auction of Mahatma Gandhi's personal belongings film maker James Otis earlier this month, which was snapped up by Indian liquor baron Vijay Mallya for $2.1 million. (See: Vijay Mallya tops the bid for Gandhi's items at $2.1 million)
This priceless carpet, known as the 'Pearl Carpet of Baroda', valued at Rs6 million when made in 1865, was commissioned by India's maharaja of Baroda, who wanted the carpet to drape it over the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina in a way Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal's tomb is draped at the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Although auctioneer Sotheby's had put a starting bid price of around $5 million originally, it was expecting as much as $20 million for it, the global economic crisis seems to have made the wealthy tighten their purse strings. Since there were only three bidders, the starting price was brought down to $4.5 million.
An anonymous buyer bought the Baroda pearl carpet for $5.5 million setting record for a carpet sold in an auction. Last year a 400-year old Persian Isfahan carpet was auctioned by Christie's in New York for $4.45 million.
The 5-foot-8-inch by 8-foot-8-inch carpet has never appeared at an auction before, although it was exhibited in 1902-03 at an exhibition held Delhi displaying the wealth of the maharajas and was once again showcased in the landmark 1985 exhibition of India at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This splendid carpet has a surface that is entirely adorned by an estimated two million natural seed pearls, known as ''Basra'' pearls originally collected in the waters of the Gulf. The design is picked out in coloured glass beads and the richly embellished with hundreds of diamonds and precious stones set in gold.
The design of the work echoes many of the details found in Safavid and Mughal carpet designs with dense fields of swirling flowering vines that form a deconstructed series of three Mughal-style arches.
The centre of attraction are the three large round 'rosettes' each made of table-cut diamonds set in silvered gold at the centre of the carpet with smaller diamond rosettes in the border, all of which are embellished with precious stones like sapphires, rubies and emeralds set in gold.
The intended gift was never delivered as the Maharaja died before he could make the donation and the carpet remained as a family heirloom.
The carpet was in India till 1940 but in 1943, the then King of Baroda, Pratap Singh Gaikwad, married Maharani Sita Devi and took the carpet along with them, when they moved to Monte Carlo in Monaco neighbouring southern France.
In 1947, when India gained Independence and the princely state of Baroda meged with the Indian Union, the Indian government was shocked to find that the Baroda treasury was empty.
They forced Pratap Singh Gaikwad to bring back a number of valuables, which he did but kept the Baroda pearl carpet and many of the jewels, which Maharani Sita Devi had promptly transferred to her name and had had them reset at the famous jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels's New York and Paris outlets.
The pearl carpet was thought to have been kept in a bank vault in Geneva and was rumoured to have been sold to an Arab prince for $31 million, according to a report appearing in Indian and Arab newspapers in January 1994.