Tipu Sultan’s bedchamber sword

Tipu Sultan’s bedchamber sword sold at Bonhams with its scabbard for £12m.

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Estimated at £1.5m-2m in Bonhams’ Islamic and Indian Art sale in London on May 23, it took £14m including buyer’s premium – a record for any Islamic object sold at auction.

Nima Sagharchi, group head of Islamic and Indian art, said: “The sword has an extraordinary history, an astonishing provenance and unrivalled craftsmanship. It was no surprise it was so hotly contested between two phone bidders and a bidder in the room.”

However, just 20 years ago, before the emergence of nationalistic Indian buyers in the market, it had sold at auction for £150,000.

Tipu Sultan

An image of Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’. Image: Bonhams.

Known as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, Tipu was the ruler of the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore. He was a renowned army leader and a celebrated hero of colonial resistance but was defeated and killed at the siege of Seringapatam – the final confrontation of the fourth Anglo- Mysore War against forces from the British East India Company.

Following this defeat many objects from his palace, including his throne and personal collection, and from his treasury were taken to Britain. Many items are in museums and others in private hands.

Tipu Sultan’s bedchamber sword

Tipu Sultan’s bedchamber sword and its scabbard, £12m at Bonhams.

Tipu Sultan (1751-99) is reported to have slept in a hammock in his locked and bolted bedchamber with a pair of pistols and this sword by his side. It was found in his private quarters after the battle on May 4, 1799, and later presented to Major General David Baird by the army ‘as a token of their high esteem of his courage and conduct’. Baird had led the column of soldiers that ended the month-long siege of Seringapatam.

The blade, which is inscribed ‘The Sword of the Ruler’ was made by Mughal swordsmiths following the style of German blades introduced to India in the 16th century. The hilt is inlaid in gold calligraphy with five of the qualities of Allah and two invocations calling on Allah by name.

Tipu Sultan's sword hilt

A detail of Tipu Sultan's sword hilt.

Items taken by the British from Tipu have long held huge fascination among collectors. This sword had been offered by descendants of General Baird in September 2003 at London numismatist Dix Noonan Webb when it sold for £150,000.

However, prices have increased markedly. Collections of similar Tipu objects were sold at Sotheby’s on May 25, 2005, and in 2010, followed by Bonhams in 2015, when a collection of 30 items totalled more than £6m.

A gold finial in the shape of a tiger’s head set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds from Tipu’s throne had been blocked from UK export in 2021. After the £1.5m value was not raised by a museum the private owner was granted an export licence.

The price achieved for the sword at Bonhams surpassed previous auction highs for Islamic artefacts. It toppled the £6.8m hammer price (£8.1m with premium) for a folio from the Shahnameh – or ‘Book of Kings’ – made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia (r.1524-76) which sold at Sotheby’s on October 26, 2022. An Ilkhanid gold and silver-inlaid brass candlestick, c.1275, sold for £5.6m at Sotheby’s in 2021 was the previous high for Islamic metalwork.

In April 2008, an iron and copper key with an inscription dated AH575 (1179- 80AD), thought to be from the ka’ba, sold for £8.2m at Sotheby’s. However, the sale was later revoked after doubts were raised over its authenticity.