The UK government has stepped in to place a temporary export bar on an 18th century era dagger and scabbard from India, worth over £1 million, to allow a British institution or buyer to bid for the rare historic artefact.
The dagger was owned by Robert Clive, referred to as Clive of India for his early colonisation role, and collected during his time in the country. It is likely to have been acquired by Clive in 1757 following his victory for the at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal.
“This beautiful example of a Mughal dagger and scabbard has a lot to teach us about both the British in India and the nature of diplomatic gifts at the time,” said UK Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage.
“I hope a UK-based buyer is found so this magnificent item can be studied and enjoyed for years to come,” she said.
Valued at £1,120,000, experts say the dagger has an unusually formed jade hilt with an "unparalleled" arrangement of precious stones, some of considerable size, whilst the blade is a fine example of Indian watered steel. Dating back to 1650, the silk brocade cover on the wooden scabbard or cover for the dagger is Iranian, demonstrating the influence of Iran on India throughout the period. The fact that this dagger has retained all its components, including the precious stones, is exceptional, according to historians.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) decision to impose a temporary export bar follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee agreed that this is a “fascinating object” and illustrative of the culture of court etiquette and diplomatic gift-giving observed at the imperial and regional courts in 18th century India. Despite the "undeniable controversial" figure of Robert Clive, the object is hugely important to the study of the history of the British in India, the RCEWA believes.
“This fabulously ornate dagger and scabbard shed outstandingly important light on the nature of Anglo-Indian diplomatic relations in the mid eighteenth-century and on the personality of Robert Clive,” said Peter Barber, a Member of the RCEWA.
“The flamboyantly adorned hilt of the dagger is stylistically atypical of Moghul workmanship. Revealingly for the mentalities of the time, it may have been altered, and enriched, to resemble what the imperial or princely donor – trying particularly hard to flatter and win influence with its all all-powerful recipient – thought looked European and thus familiar to Clive,” he said.
“The very splendour of the dagger and its embroidered hilt – and the fact that the precious stones have not been removed as was usually the case with diplomatic gifts – also provides important evidence in the ongoing re-assessment of Clive’s personality and conduct,” he added.
Barber is keen for the dagger and scabbard to be retained in the UK so that they can be researched and displayed as they illustrate an important chapter in the “long story of the UK’s involvement with the Indian subcontinent”.
The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds that its departure from the UK would be a misfortune because it was of outstanding significance for the study of 18th century Mughal weapons.
Gold and emeralds
The decision on the export licence application for the piece will be deferred until October 8. This may be extended until February 8, 2022, if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made at the recommended price of £1,120,000, DCMS said.
The dagger with watered steel blade, nephrite jade hilt is set with rubies and emeralds in gold. The scabbard of wood covered with silk brocade, the nephrite jade locket and chape is set with rubies in gold, and tassel and threads of silk and metal. The dagger length is 39.5 cm and the scabbard measures 30 cm in length. The condition of the jewelled jade components is said to be excellent and the condition of the silk scabbard covering, threads and tassel are relatively good given their inherent fragility.