LUXURYCULTURE.COM - The Legacy of the Maharaja of Baroda


The Maharaja of Baroda was one of the most important jewelry collectors of the 19th century. His legacy of treasures including the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, which will be auctioned at Sotheby's on March 19, are a testament to his sophistication.

In the world of important jewelry, the provenance “of Baroda” has more cachet than Cartier and more value than Van Cleef & Arpels. The Moon of Baroda was the diamond memorably worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”; the Baroda Pearl Necklace sold for the record-breaking price of US$ 7.1 million at Christie’s in 2007; and this month, the legendary Pearl Carpet of Baroda will be the highlight of Sotheby’s first ever sale in the Middle East, in Doha, Qatar.

Unlike Alfred Van Cleef or Louis Cartier, the founder of the Baroda “brand” was not a jeweler but rather a collector, as well as an Indian Maharaja. The Gaekwar, as he was known, ascended to the throne of the state of Baroda in 1865 and established a court renowned throughout the subcontinent for its sophistication and richness. His tunics were spun with threads of gold and his antique-filled palaces set in English-style gardens. A patron of the arts and architecture, the Gaekwar was most famous for his fondness of magnificent gemstones, which led him to create one of the most important collections of jewelry of his generation.

It was the Gaekwar who famously bought the 128-carat Star of the South diamond and combined it with the 78.53-carat English Dresden diamond on a spectacular triple-tiered necklace that he would wear for official paintings. This incredible piece would later be worn in the 1940s by the Maharini Sita Devi, the wife of a later Maharaja of Baroda who was known as the Wallis Simpson of India. Sita Devi shared the Gaekwar’s love for gemstones and delighted in having the family jewels redesigned and reset in Paris. The Gaekwar’s diamond necklace was one such piece that was disintegrated; Cartier now owns the Star of the South.

Another celebrated commission by the Gaekwar was the Baroda Pearl necklace, which originally consisted of seven strands of mothball-sized pearls and was said to include diamonds that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. This, too, was last seen on the neck of Sita Devi in 1948 before it was reworked to create a two-strand necklace made of 68 pink-and-cream pearls with a Cartier clasp.

Known for his love of displayed magnificence, and in keeping with the old Indian tradition of giving expensive presents, the Gaekwar commissioned what is now known as the Pearl Carpet of Baroda as a gift for the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in Medina. An iconic masterpiece of Indian craftsmanship, the carpet consists of a deerskin and silk base encrusted with up to 1.5 million Basra pearls as well as diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. Work began on the tapestry during the 1860s by hundreds of artisans and took five years to make.

The carpet’s opulence was instantly legendary and in 1906 the New York Times reported “Maharaja Gaekwar possesses the most costly piece of jewelry in the world. In dazzling magnificence, it has never been, or is likely to be, excelled. This treasure is in the form of a shawl or cloak of woven pearls, edged with a deep border of arabesque designs of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires”.

The carpet is set to be the highlight of Sotheby’s first auction in Doha, Qatar, on March 19. Doha is an appropriate place for the sale as the Basra pearls found on the carpet were originally collected in the waters of the Arabian Gulf. The city is also emerging as an important cultural centre with the November 2008 opening of the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and a Jean Nouvel-designed extension to the Qatar National Museum currently in the works.

Mary Jo Otsea, worldwide director of Rugs and Carpets at Sotheby’s said “It is fitting that an historic object as magnificent and unique as the Pearl Carpet of Baroda is a major highlight of our inaugural series of auctions in Doha. I am delighted that Middle Eastern collectors will be able to view this stunning work”.

It is difficult to predict how this remarkable object will fare at auction. Even in the face of economic uncertainty, there is a strong market for the most exquisite pieces. “Works that are truly rare and special like the carpet will always find a lot of buyers,” said Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s deputy chairman for Europe and Asia. Officially, the estimated price is available only to prospective purchasers but bidding is expected to begin at US$ 5 million with speculation that it could achieve as much as US$ 60 million.

What is certain is the remarkable legacy of the Gaekwar of Baroda, a Maharaja with a legendary passion for important jewels and whose name will forever be synonymous with exquisite and rare objects. The Pearl Carpet of Baroda is testament to this legacy.

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