The United Kingdom recently announced a temporary export bar on a gold, gem-set tiger’s head finial which was once part of Tipu Sultan’s octagonal throne. The government imposed the bar following the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) which argued that it is “closely connected with British history and is of outstanding significance for the study of royal propaganda and 18th-century Anglo-Indian history.” But it is a double travesty for the UK to ban the export of an object it acquired through naked loot and plunder, when it should rather be enabling its return to India, its country of origin.
The finial stayed out of public view for almost two centuries, before it was rediscovered and sold at a Bonhams auction in 2009 for £389,000. The UK imposed a similar export ban then as well, ironically based on recommendations of British Museum curators. It was back in auction at Christie’s in 2019, but was subsequently withdrawn. The accompanying lot essay confirms that the finial had been exhibited in top global museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Grand Palais in Paris, the Doge’s Palace in Venice and the Palace Museum in Beijing on temporary loans that embellished its market value while blurring its disreputable provenance. Now it has re-emerged, presumably because the current owner has applied for an export license to move the object out of the country. Only, its estimated value is now significantly higher at £1.5 million, making it more difficult for a UK buyer to counter.
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Tipu Sultan was the Indian ruler of Mysore who fought doggedly for decades to preserve his independence against the British. Using the ruse of Napoleon’s attempted correspondence with the sultan, Governor-General Wellesley of the British East India Company (EIC) attacked Mysore to further his colonial expansion plans despite a peace treaty being in place. Tipu died in combat while defending his capital Srirangapatna, and what followed was flagrant looting of his palace by EIC soldiers. The finial is just one of the many Tipu treasures ranging from precious gems and gold encrusted objects, jade and ivory, swords and armour, cannons and rockets, clothing, tent, books and manuscripts that are currently displayed or hidden in UK museums, castles, libraries and private collections. In recent decades many of these objects have resurfaced, and some have been put on auction by descendants of EIC officers and soldiers involved in that siege and looting.
The best of the loot were gifted to the royalty and included the Tiger’s Head and the exquisite Huma Bird of Paradise (which were also part of the throne), Tipu’s war coat, helmet and his sword. Some are now on display in the Grand Vestibule at Windsor Castle. The Royal Collection Trust in one of its official catalogue entries acknowledges: “In the heat of the action the Sultan’s magnificent treasury and library were ransacked by the British forces, and the gold coverings of his throne were cut up into small pieces for distribution as prize.” The finial in question is one of the eight gold coverings of the octagonal throne, the existence of only four of which have been published.
The Clive Museum at Powis Castle has one of the other finials along with historical objects like Tipu’s royal tent, cannons, weapon, and armor. The National Trust’s essay feature on the museum openly states, “Some objects in the Clive Collection were looted during his, and later Edward’s, establishment and maintenance of power in the Indian subcontinent.”
The National War Museum in London has Tipu’s war helmet and bejewelled dagger. It acquired them from the descendants of Charles Cornwallis who had managed to get his hands on some of the finest items because the chairman of the committee of prize agents had served under him during the Third Anglo-Mysore War.
Tipu’s collection of more than 2000 rare books were also taken away and today lie distributed between the British Library, and the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge Universities among others. The V&A however has perhaps what is the most intriguing object: Tipu’s Tiger, a wooden semi-automaton that shows a tiger mauling a European soldier.
So, what message is Britain conveying to the rest of the world by facilitating trade in these objects instead of enabling their return to India? And what is the message it is conveying to its own citizens by doing so when countries such as France and Germany are taking a more reconciliatory approach?
By clinging to foreign cultural treasures to which it has no ethical ownership claim, the UK is only reasserting the dishonorable values of its erstwhile empire which upheld unfettered corporate greed and use of brute force, organized looting by soldiers and prize agents, and exploitation of the subjects it ruled. Keeping these objects in the UK prevents the Indian public who were robbed of them in the past from accessing them today, and Indian historians and academicians from learning from them. Further, it leaves the door ajar for them to disappear into private collections or museum storages. When displayed, these objects are denigrated to tourist attractions, alienated from their original contexts in deeply problematic legacy institutions.
Like the Benin Bronzes, Tipu’s treasures are an open-and-shut case of colonial-era looting and plunder. They have been documented in graphic detail in letters and memoirs of the officers of the British East India Company themselves. UK’s cultural institutions such as the British Museum and the V&A have hidden behind legislation and engaged in obfuscation for too long. It is time for the British government to acknowledge the wrongs of its colonial past, and repatriate its ill-gotten culturally significant objects back to their countries of origin. The upcoming 75th anniversary of India’s independence in 2022 presents Britain with a timely opportunity to right these wrongs.