Amy Lin of Saffronart explores how the wealthiest family in the world lost their fortune and regained their cultural heritage.
New York: A stunning gilt bronze liqueur set featured in the collection Art of the Pour on The Story by Saffronart sets the stage for one of the most dramatic tales of the 20th century. The provenance of this magnificent piece can be traced back to none other than the legendary Nizams of Hyderabad.
The Asaf Jahs of Hyderabad led extravagant lives that can only be found in fairy tales today. When this fine liqueur set was part of the Nizam’s collection, it represented a decadent lifestyle maintained by 14,000 staff members, including 3,000 Arab body guards, 40 chandelier dusters, 30 water fetchers and several servants whose sole privilege was to crack the Nizam’s walnuts. The gilt liqueur set is only a microscopic part of the entertainment ensemble that was seen at the Nizam’s lavish parties, with fine cigars and aged wines served around imported French furniture and chandeliers.
By the early 20th century, the Nizam’s wealth accumulated to approximately £100 million in gold and silver bullion, and £400 million in jewelry alone, making him the richest man in the world. Nesting on the legendary Golconda diamond mines, the region of Hyderabad was rich in gems and natural resources. As strong allies of the British government, royalty and dignitaries from around the world presented the Nizam with gifts in gold and jewels for the nazar. It is said that jewels were strewn all over his palaces, but the Nizam always knew where they were kept.
Yet, all that glitters cannot last indefinitely. By the 1930s, the Asaf Jah empire was rapidly falling apart. All the wealth was concentrated in the monarchy while the people lived in a destitute state. When Indian independence was declared in 1947, the Nizam wanted an independent Hyderabad. A year later, military action was taken in the region and the Nizam’s army surrendered unconditionally within days. As years passed, the family fortune fell into disarray as palaces were looted and royal treasures were sold in the street markets of Hyderabad. Bitter family feuds were fought over a dwindling inheritance to pay their mounting debts. Disillusioned by the extravagance and debauchery, the eighth Nizam, Mukarram Jah, abandoned his worldly possessions and moved to a sheep farm in Australia.
In the early nineties, Princess Esra, the first wife of the eighth Nizam was determined to turn the family’s fortune around. Together with the renowned lawyer Vijay Shankardass, she took on more than 2,000 cases of claimants vying for the royal jewels that resulted in death threats, political intrigue and secret transactions. Finally, the Indian government made the jewels part of its national heritage and banned their export or sale in public auction.
In 1995, the State of India concluded the most complex sale in modern Indian history. After 23 years of negotiations and fallout threats, the government bought the Nazims’ jewelry for £40 million. Although the jewelry sold at a quarter of the market price, it became part of India’s national heritage. With the funds raised from this sale, Princess Esra was able to turn the main palace, Chowmahalla, into a museum. Upon entering the palace for the first time in more than 30 years, restorers found a world reclaimed from a bygone era. Armor, swords, and weapons were piled up in small mountains, while royal portraits crowded the walls. Long trains of sari and court dresses littered the floors and thousands of family photos lay open in cases. Needless to say, it was the largest restoration project undertaken in India at the time. After five years of dedication and hard work, the Chowmahalla finally opened to the public in 2005. Every day, more than 1,000 visitors come to see a palace that echoes the glory of the Nizams’ past.