18 September 2012

Princely 1930s furniture in India

I was very impressed by a triple-mirrored dressing table dating back to the early 1930s and belonging to the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan. It was a very expensive object in 1930, but that was no problem. As a 1937 cover story in Time magazine reminded readers, this Indian prince was the richest man in the world then, with a fortune of $2 billion. As an autonomous state, His Exalted Highness was the absolute ruler of 16 million people in Hyderabad; he established his own bank and issued his own currency - the Hyderabadi rupee. The Nizam was a very generous man with a strong connection the British Empire, especially during the First World War.

mahogany dressing table, c1930

Apparently the Nizam of Hyderabad presented the dresser as gift to one of his 7 wives or 42 concubines. Wonderfully detailed portraits of the Nizam in regal Indian dress were enamelled on each and every dresser piece; presumably this was to remind the lucky lady of her benefactor, each morning and evening as she performed her toilette.

This important custom-made mahogany dressing table was a rectangular chest with a serpentine panelled top with banded inlay. It lifted to allow the placement of two scallop shaded electric lights. The central bevelled dressing mirror had a swing illuminated mirror on each side. There was a quarter-round glass tray on either side. The vanity surface was detailed with varied storage and hidden drawers, the base housing a bank of three drawers on the right, the left with actual top drawer and two faux drawers that open as a door with a hidden latch to reveal a key lock safe, the whole rising on six acanthus carved legs on short block feet. When opened, the dressing table was 60”/153 cm high.

                                    mirrors and wings closed into a kneehole desk

This piece of furniture was metamorphic, but not in the sense used in an earlier post - it couldn't be turned upside down and a step ladder pulled out from under its legs, for example. But it did have two separate functions. When the mirrors were closed and the side trays tucked inside, the object looked like a normal mahogany kneehole desk i.e with space underneath for the person’s legs. There were Chippendale style carved bracket feet and banks of pedestals fitted with lockable faux drawers to the left that concealed a safe. The drawers to the right were fitted with ormolu chased swan neck handles.

The interior completely fitted with a 30 piece Art Deco sterling silver and cut glass vanity set, hallmarked and stamped for Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Co Ltd, 1930, each piece finely enamelled with a Royal portrait medallion showing images of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. The set comprised brushes, bottles with hinged lids and interior stoppers, hand mirror, jars, scissors, nail buffer fitted in a cut dish, files and an 8-day clock. Each squared bottle was etched on the corners with the moon and star symbol.

silver and glass vanity set, Art Deco, with princely portraits

The fine arts world expected the dressing table to be considered an important treasure for the people of India, perhaps symbolising the grandeur of India's royal past.

Two auction houses listed this magnificent piece of furniture in the last few years. So I have to ask if the same object sold twice within a very short time, by the Austin Auction Company in Texas in 2010 and by Butchoff Antiques in London in 2011. If so, why was the dressing table valued at only £12,600/USA $20,000 by the Americans, yet it was valued at £175,000/USA $ 277,000 by the British less than one year later.

7th Nizam of Hyderabad, Time Magazine, 1937


Lilly said...

I just love the art deco vanity set. Imagine 2 billion in 1937, hard to imagine really.As is the 7 wives and 42 concubines. Fabulous post, found you through BC - nice to find another Aussie blog.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
An amazingly wonderful piece. We cannot somehow imagine that a valuation of £12,000 could, so recently, have in any way been correct. The second valuation seems to us much closer to the mark.

Hels said...


It is absolutely fabulous.

I have seen amazing treasures commissioned and owned by maharajahs etc, especially pre-20th century. But the idea of spending squillions on multiple wives and concubines in the 1930s must have given even the Nizam of Hyderabad pause to think.

Andrew said...

It is a wonderful piece. Co-operative Princes and Sultans of the Empire were well rewarded by Britain.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I rechecked the Austin Auction Company's 2010 catalogue, just in case I misread the figure. It was as I had thought.

So now I am thinking that they may have simply made a typo themselves. Or they had truly no idea what such a treasure from India (Jewel in the British Empire)might be worth.

Artlover said...

Rach of the 30 pieces was enamelled with a Royal portrait medallion showing different images of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Cocky bugger!

Hels said...


Co-operative Princes and Sultans of the Empire were indeed very well rewarded by Britain. But this goes further than independence in internal affairs. In 1937 Time Magazine called Osman Ali Khan, Asif Jah VII the wealthiest man in the world.

Hels said...


absolute ruler of a HUGE population, ran his own bank and was wealthy beyond belief. But at least he consulted art experts before commissioning the furniture and the 30 silver objects :)

columnist said...

I am staggered by the second price. It isn't exactly the prettiest of pieces of furniture, being a mishmash of Chippendale meets Anglo Indian style, but I can imagine that for rich Indians, (assuming they were the second buyer/s), they might want to buy a piece of their history, much as the Chinese are doing, and ramping up the prices of any decent Chinese art in the process.

Emm said...

Wow. It took me half a second to realise that your first two images were off the same item but as I read about it, it slowly dawned on me. What a fabulous item. i would certainly like something like that in this day and age.

It is intriguing indeed that the item listed at two such disparate prices. i wonder if the US auction was dealing in a fake or facsimile, if they did not know the value of the item, or some such reason.

ChrisJ said...

A mystery of sorts! The Austin Auction Company site says that the, then, present owner had purchased the piece in the 1990's in Asia. Presumably that person was not taking a $250,000 loss. So the low price must have come from Asia somewhere?

Some things never change - the king of Swaziland buys each wife a Mercedes!

Parnassus said...

Auctions are indeed fascinating and unpredictable. Sometimes 'sleepers' turn up which subsequently sell for fabulous sums. Were the figures you mentioned estimates or final sales? Often extremely valuable objects have low estimates for various reasons, as for example when almost all of the Jackie Onassis pieces sold for ten times or more of their estimates.

Personally, I found this dressing table to be rather unattractive, in spite of the obviously high workmanship. I know nothing about the value of Indian aristocratic furniture, so don't know if the final price was low or high, but as Columnist pointed out, many people will compete buying back their own heritage.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


a mishmash of Chippendale meets Anglo Indian style indeed. In fact I took "deco" out of the title because the only deco elements were the lights and the sterling silver/cut glass vanity set. Neither the lights nor the vanity set were made by the furniture maker.

Hels said...


Austin had the real thing, and knew it. So in all honesty, I should add the last line of their catalogue: "Purchased by the present owner in the 1990s in Asia, the dressing table is expected to make $20,000 to $25,000 in Sunday’s auction. “It could go much higher, though. To the people of India, this piece could well be regarded as an important treasure. It symbolises the grandeur of India’s royal past.”

Hels said...


Some things NEVER change! We are all (or should be) aware of the poorly distributed incomes of India's 1.2 billion population. Over half the population living off very poor incomes and less than half the population living totally splendidly.

But that doesn't even come close to explaining why a princely 1930s desk would be worth USA $277,000.

Hels said...


very good question.

I wrote the post nearly a year ago and scheduled it for this week, so I will have to go back to the auction catalogues to see whether those prices were estimates or final sales. When I get home tonight, I will add another note.

Hels said...


this Nizam was amazingly supportive of the British crown. During the First World War he purchased and presented to the RAF a squadron of bombers, that was named the Hyderabad Squadron. He also equipped the Australian Navy with a destroyer, HMAS Nizam (see the Butchoff URL in the post).

Hels said...


The blog called "A Private Portrait Miniature Collection" has examples of expensive rajah watches with stunning enamel rajah portraits, all dated from the 1890s. The tradition was a long one.

Executive Desks said...

I found it quiet interesting ,Thank you for posting the great content…I was looking for something like this…, hopefully you will keep posting such blogs…

Hels said...


Masterpiece London was held in July 2011. The lady’s dressing table was on Butchoff's Antiques stand for £175,000 and was made by the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company Ltd of London. Since there was no auction, there was no estimate - the final sales price was all we were given.

I stand corrected.

Hels said...

Executive Desks

If you were looking for something like this, I hope you are very very wealthy :). If not, you can enjoy an intimate examination of the dressing table by furnture expert Christopher Payne. It may be the closest any of us get to magnificence.

Hels said...

Executive Desks,

the YouTube url for Christopher Payne is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cB4ZY5PMGO0

Anonymous said...

How fabulous! Thank you - you always find such imaginative material for your posts.

Hels said...


Once I saw Christopher Payne run his hands over the dressing table, I fell in love. The secret drawers are exquisite, the safe is perfectly hidden, the joints are seamless ! Ok the legs are weird.

Outdoor Furniture said...

Beautiful collection.

Estate Sterling said...

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Hels said...

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