Tipu Sultan's gold finial
A gold finial set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds from the throne of Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’.

Known as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, he was the ruler of the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore, a renowned army leader and a celebrated hero of colonial resistance. But he was defeated and died in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War against forces from the British East India Company. Following this defeat many objects from his treasury were taken to Britain.

The current owner of the tiger finial applied for an export licence earlier this year. However, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has temporarily blocked this application to prevent the object from leaving the country in the hope a buyer can be found to keep it in the UK.

“Outstanding significance”

The government made the decision after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) argued it is “closely connected with British history and is of outstanding significance for the study of royal propaganda and 18th-century Anglo-Indian history”.

However, the value of the artefact has been questioned. It was purchased at Bonhams for a buyer’s premium-inclusive price of £389,600 in April 2009 and offered at auction again at Christie’s in New York in June 2019 in a Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence sale estimated at £350,000-500,000 but it was withdrawn before it sold.

The expert adviser from RCEWA queried the valuation on the application of £1.16m so the secretary of state appointed Oriental and Islamic arms and armour specialist Robert Hales for an independent valuation. Hales valued it at £1.5m and the secretary of state agreed this to be the fair market price.

A UK buyer has until February 11, 2022, to raise the £1.5m needed to keep it in the UK. This may be extended until June 11 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made.

The finial is one of eight gold tiger heads that adorned the throne of Tipu Sultan. Made of gold and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds, its existence was unknown until 2009.

RCEWA member Christopher Rowell said: “Tipu Sultan’s golden and bejewelled throne (c.1787-93) was broken up by the British army’s prize agents after Tipu’s defeat and death in defence of his capital, Seringapatam, in 1799.

“The tiger and its stripes were Tipu’s personal symbols. ‘Better to live one day as a tiger than 1000 years as a sheep’ he famously declared. His flirtation with Napoleonic France led to his downfall at British hands. This tiger’s head, one of four throne finials to survive, including a head in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle (National Trust), should remain in the country together with the other fragments of the throne, and I hope that every effort will be made to achieve this.”