Given a rudimentary catalogue description and estimated at £500-1000, it was contested by multiple bidders before it sold on the phone for £75,000 (plus 23% buyer’s premium) at the auction in West Norwood on April 15.
It measured 23in x 2ft 10in (59 x 85cm).
Key to its appeal was the subject matter, identified by bidders as the walled old town of Amritsar with the Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib, the holiest religious complex of the Sikh religion, in the background.
The artist is thought to be Baba Bishan Singh (1836-c.1900), one of a family of painters operating in Lahore and Amritsar in the second half of the 19th century responsible for maintaining the murals and motifs on the walls of the Golden Temple. The artist includes himself in the bustling scene: he is seen painting a portrait in an alcove of a building in the top left of the composition.
At the exhibition of arts and crafts held at Lahore in 1864, Bishan Singh showed ten pictures including Darbars of Ranjit Singh, Sher Singh and the Municipal Committee, Amritsar. These attracted the attention of Baden-Powell and Percy Brown who commented in his Handbook of the Manufactures and Arts of the Punjab that 'the perspective of the buildings is incorrect but the figure drawing is admirable. The colour is tasteful and rich and likenesses are good and the expression is varied and truthful’. The possibility arises that this was amongst them.
A 15 x 20½in. (38 x 52cm) miniature by Bishan Singh depicting the court of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) and his family c.1864 sold for $233,587 at Christie’s in October 2008 while another of 1872 depicting the city of Srinagar by the Jhelum river was offered in June last year but, estimated at £100,000-150,000, failed to sell.
Rosebery’s vendor was a London taxi driver who had bought his prize at a car boot sale 30 years ago for £40 – haggling the seller down from £60.
Specialist Peter Greenway called him after the sale to pass on the good news. “He told me what a bad day he was having as his taxi had a flat tyre and he wasn’t able to go to work. Having heard the news he decided to give himself the weekend off.”