A pear shaped claret jug with a serpent curled around its handle is said to have caused quite a stir at the Islamic and Indian Art sale held recently at Bonhams, an auction house in London. It was crafted in the nineteenth century by Oomersi Mawji, a silversmith working for the Maharaos of Kutch. The jug was amongst 10 silver works priced between £40,000 and £70,000. Other pieces were in the price range from £1,000 to £1,500 and £15,000 to £20,000.
Mawji was a renowned silversmith during his time and some of his works are believed to have been owned by the British officials of the East India Company. “This is a stunning example of Mawji’s craftsmanship. Another work of similar top quality was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia, and is currently on display. This was a rare opportunity to collect an outstanding piece by the most celebrated Indian silversmith,” says Alice Bailey, Head of Bonhams Indian and Islamic Department. She adds that the claret jug is amongst Mawji’s best works. A similar piece was sold for £21,600 in the salerooms at Bonhams in 2009.
Art experts point out that the history of Indian silver before the end of the 18thcentury is difficult to document because of the Indian attitude towards metalwork – melting down the old to make the new. As a result, very few pieces that were crafted before the 19th century have survived.
The Maharaos of Kutch supported the silversmiths’ trade and tried to create awareness of their craftsmanship. Bailey adds that the princely rulers had commissioned attar-daans (perfume containers), paan-daans (betel containers), gulab-pash (rosewater sprinklers) and hookahs (water pipes). “Besides personal use, there was a high demand for silverware to be presented as gifts and trophies for the British in India,” she reveals.
Kutchi silverware was presented to dignitaries on ceremonial occasions. A silver-gilt presentation trophy, also included in the Bonham’s October sale, is believed to have been commissioned for this very purpose. It is said to have been presented to Lady Wynford by the Maharao himself. It was also, until recently, in the private collection of Wynyard Wilkinson, a colonial silver historian.