In what one observer described as a ‘landmark event’, Chiswick Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) conducted a white-glove sale of a collection of Indian and Burmese silver on February 14.
The auction of the Stewart collection of silver of the Raj period, the first of its kind in recent memory*, generated a £130,690 hammer total with all of the 228 lots sold. The contents were overwhelmingly bought by private collectors located in the collecting strongholds of Britain, the US, Canada, Singapore, and India.
Silver of this type was admired across the world at the turn of the 20th century but it is only in recent decades that its reputation for exceptional design and craftsmanship has been revived with the publication of key reference works.
This collection, inspired by items inherited from grandparents who were based in India and Ceylon in the early 1900s, was guided by Wynyard Wilkinson’s seminal book Indian Silver 1858-1947 that was published in 1999.
The contents covered all the major silversmithing centres of British India from prolific cites such as Lucknow to the little-known Trichinopoly and all forms from card cases to culinary wares.
Chiswick Auctions’ specialist John Rogers described it as the most comprehensive collection of its type offered in recent memory.
“As the only UK silver department to have a dedicated approach to non-European silver, presenting the Stewart Collection with such success was a proud moment. I know of no other collection of Indian silver with such a holistic and thorough approach to both ornamentation and design.”
Peter Orr and Sons
Topping the sale at an extraordinary £27,000 from an Indian private collector (estimate £800-1200) was a three-piece tea set by Peter Orr and Sons – the greatest of the Madras makers.
As pictured in Indian Silver 1858-1947, the design for this bachelor’s tea set, marked P Orr and Son Madras Silver, appears in a sales catalogue of c.1880. The bodies are embossed with the Jagannath procession at Puri with the handles formed as coiling serpents with a seated female figure. The teapot features a cast and chased spout formed as the head of a mythical bird and a domed lid surmounted by a detachable cast finial of Vishnu. In short, it combines a classic English form with the best of Indian ornament.
However, it is evidence of the rising interest in the best colonial era silver that the same tea set had sold at Bonhams in September 2016 for £2000.
The Orr and Sons department store, which still trades from Anna Salai in Chennai, was founded by Scotsman Orr in 1846 and initially sold primarily clocks, jewellery and silverwares. It was the place where first Rolex watch was sold in India (for 198 rupees).
The concept of a tea service, comprising a teapot, milk jug or creamer, and sugar bowl, was brought to India by the British Army but it was adopted by some Anglophiles.
Another rare three-piece tea set was made in predominantly Muslim Lucknow, c.1890, in the so-called ‘Sikh Vignette’ pattern. Embossed with multiple portrait busts of Sikh royals or military heroes, the teapot is applied with a caparisoned elephant finial. It sold to India for £3400.
An early 20th century tea service made in Bombay, c.1910, decorated with a register of animal cartouches in the popular Animal Vignette pattern, the teapot with a curved spout and handle formed as elephant head, took £1700.
Of all the silversmiths working in British India, one name stands out: Oomersi Mawji of Bhuj. “Working the silver with ingenious skill and patience, Oomersi Mawji and his sons [from the cobbler caste] raised the quality of decoration on Cutch silver to an art form,” notes Wilkinson.
His most famous creation is an extraordinary black francolin or partridge tea service – the chicks forming the milk and sugar, the mother and a coiling snake the teapot. An example sold for £20,500 at Bonhams in April 2012 while another made £14,000 at Christie’s in June 2014.
Rogers had been delighted to welcome Mawji’s great-great granddaughters to the saleroom to discuss the family’s great silversmithing legacy and show them a Mawji baluster-form teapot.
Made c.1880, the entire surface is chased with a detailed design of plants and animals with a francolin head forming the spout, a lizard the handle and a scorpion the finial. The original drawing for the design has survived as part of a corpus of 51 drawings from the workshop of Raghavji Mawji (a contemporary and presumably a relative) sold for £20,000 by Bonhams as part of an auction of Indian and Islamic art in October 2019.
The teapot in the Stewart collection was guided at £3000-5000 and brought £7500 from a US bidder.
The best of Cutch
Cutch silver demonstrates a broad range of themes and quality of workmanship and this explains why two ostensibly similar forms can bring widely differing prices. Here a range of typical beakers with foliate chased decoration sold at around £100-200 each. Another with a cast beaded rim and a finely worked display of a tiger, antelope, dogs and a boar realised £900.
More particularly good Cutch work was seen to an unmarked late 19th century rose water sprinkler (or gulab pash) sold for £2400 and a unmarked claret jug with deep chased decoration of foliate scrolls and rosettes and a finial cast as a caparisoned elephant which took £8500. Both went to US bidders.
Many of the makers in Bhuj, even those who produced quality work, currently remain unidentified.
A particularly fine object in this sale, sold to a US bidder at £3000, was an early 20th century pump-action diffuser for scenting a room. Standing 11in (27cm) high with its cast figure of Krishna playing his flute besides two cows, it carries the marks LG 100 Bhuj that are unknown on any published piece.
Estimated at £800-1200, another claret jug or ewer sold to a US bidder for £4000. Adopting a familiar neoclassical form but with a handle formed as a cobra and the finial as a snake charmer playing his pungi, it has a band of Swami pattern decoration incorporating scenes of nine Hindu deities riding their chosen beasts.
Although it is stamped Bhicajee & Co, Bombay, Silver for the retailer that was on Apollo Bunder (now known as Wellington Pier), the work was characteristic of Bangalore.
Many of the forms created by Indian silversmiths mirrored those that were popular in Britain at the time, although some were new or adapted for life in the subcontinent. These include milk and butter coolers that countered against the intense heat and covered vessels which kept flies at bay.
From the Kashmir region was a scarce mid to late 19th century butter dish on stand – a classic English form here modelled after a Kashmiri lacquered papier-mâché turban box. It was estimated at £500-800 but sold at £2400 to an Indian buyer.
If the silverware produced in Kashmir is easily recognisable then less understood are the complex interweaving of styles and forms that define silver from the Poona region.
The city’s main craftsman, Heerappa Boochena, was probably the maker of an unmarked silver cigarette case, c.1890. The design of a tiger hunt is almost certainly borrowed from Our Tiger Shooting (1859), one of the 40 prints in the popular album Curry & Rice penned by George Franklin Atkinson (1822-59), a captain in the Bengal Engineers. Estimated at £400-600, it sold at £550.
From a host of silver rice bowls was one of c.1890 that presently unpublished research suggests was made in Poona. The form of this 44oz bowl with its distinct fold over rim is one associated with Lucknow with its embossed decoration of scenes from the Ramayana borrowing from the Burmese style. Estimated at £800-1200, it made £1100.
The seller’s favourite lot was an early 20th century Karachi table casket by Soosania estimated at £600-800 and sold at £1000.
Raised on lion paw feet, the lid is chased with a scene of a church with spire (probably St Andrew’s Church, Karachi) with two biplanes circling above. The two aircraft are curved much like birds in flight; a charming naivety that suggests the silversmith was unfamiliar with the new concept of powered flight.
‘A new benchmark’
Shortly after the sale, Rogers received an email from one of the many bidders who had registered for the sale. It read: “I just wanted to say congratulations on your sell-out sale of the Stewart Collection – it was a wonderful sale and must set a new benchmark. I am delighted to have secured a couple of lots, which I will add to those inherited from a family who spent over a hundred years in the Raj. It is just such a joy to see this type of silverwork celebrated by the market.”
No longer, it seems, are these the last days of the Raj.
* This sale was quite different in content to the collection of mainly early 19th century silver made by English and Scottish emigrees in India sold by Dreweatts in Newbury in July last year (reported in ATG No 2554). Taken together, the two auctions give a good overall view of the market for all Anglo- Indian silver.