Employees of the Nizam Museum housed at Purani Haveli in Hyderabad's Old City were in for a shock when they opened the museum on Monday morning. Apart from finding a broken air vent, almost 20 ft above the floor, they discovered a broken showcase from which an impressive three-tiered tiffin box, made entirely of gold and studded with diamonds on its knob was missing, along with a gold tea cup and saucer, and a gold spoon. While authorities haven’t found much evidence through the museum's CCTV footage, they have managed to conclude that the robbers made their way in from behind the building through the 2ft wide airducts, slinking down with the use of a rope and stealing only this particular gold set and nothing else.
A BATTLE OF TRUSTS
The set is part of the Nizam’s Silver Jubilee Trust, which is chaired by Prince Muffakham Jah, the erstwhile Nizam Mukarram Jah’s younger brother; while Purani Haveli itself is part of a trust that is chaired by Mukarram Jah himself. The space for the museum has thus been leased by one trust to another, making it very difficult to point out which party is responsible for the poor security standards that allowed the theft to happen. A source close to the Nizam’s family spoke to us on the condition of anonymity saying, “This is probably the handiwork of someone who had been visiting the museum often. There are so many more valuable items that are part of the collection, so it’s a mystery why the thieves chose just this particular showcase and its objects. Thefts have happened before, there was an Alam E Mubarak, a ceremonial jewelled item, studded with diamonds and emeralds that was stolen several years ago which is why it’s surprising that we haven't been able to learn from our mistakes and upgrade the security around such exhibits.”
Scheherazade Javeri, the wife of former GPA to the Nizam, Sadruddin Javeri says, “These articles should never have been kept in that dilapidated building. There’s no proper security there and we knew it would one day lead to a theft. It’s just surprising that it's taken so long.” Also the GPA holder for the late Princess Manolya and now Princess Niloufer, Javeri explains, "I reached out to the trustees for a list of the items that are part of the trust, in relation to Princess Niloufer’s inheritance, but never got a reply from them. They've always been tight-lipped about the items. This lack of transparency is what causes such disasters.” Many believe that the Silver Jubilee Trust Collection should have rightfully been displayed at the Chowmahalla Palace Museum, which has far better security and organisation when compared to Purani Haveli’s and that the tussle between trusts had led to this fragmented display.
Tales of the Nizam’s jewels are almost legendary now, but people on the inside are of the view that very little is known about the full extent of the treasures. “Lots of pieces were initially taken out of the country in the ’70s,” says a renowned antique dealer from Mumbai, adding, “We had even heard of the Nizam disposing a 1 kg gold Mohur in Switzerland. There were emeralds, Golconda diamonds, a small tea set carved out of rubies, a priceless Baburnama. A giant spinel with the names of Mughal Emperors engraved on it is now with the Al Sabah Collection in Kuwait. That item was originally from Hyderabad. Apart from the jewels there were several other historically important items — collections of miniature paintings gifted by royals through the centuries, carpets, Qurans from the Middle East there’s a huge market for these items even now.”
With museums in the Middle East competing among one another, Mughal and Nizami items have become even more desired nowadays. Islamic art and jewellery has never before had such demand, thanks mainly to the Qataris, Kuwaitis and Saudis, who are all in a mad-dash to hoard up as many pieces they can get their hands on. “There were entire sets of Jadau items, boxes, oudh and ittar daans, kalam daans, everything was studded in diamonds and emeralds, covered in priceless enamel work,” says the dealer. “Much of it has found its way to the Middle Eastern Museums,” he says.
MUSEUMS UNDER ATTACK
While they are not so common, thefts at museums have seen a rise in the past few years. Several European institutes including the KODE Museum in Norway, the Chateau De Fontainebleau in France and the Swedish Royal Residence in Stockholm have all been burgled in the last decade, regardless of the state-of-the-art security measures they had in place.
“The security in India is very lax,” says a family member of an ex-GPA holder of the Nizam’s, “Earlier we would make sure that everything was locked and kept in strongholds, now that things are kept out on display, people know what to look for and how to form a plan. No one knew what items there were in the collection before. Then they displayed the Nizam’s Jewels and put them at the RBI in Delhi; the media hyped the jewellery, a legend was created so obviously thieves will come. This particular robbery looks more like a haphazard job. There's no way they can sell the items on the market. No auction house will touch them. Only a private collector can buy them, and even then they will hesitate since it's become such a high-profile incident now. My only hope is that the thieves don't melt the gold and sell it; these are priceless items because of their historic importance, otherwise the gold is worth around Rs 60 to Rs 70 lakhs today. Due to its Nizami heritage the set could fetch anywhere between Rs 50 crore and Rs 100 crore depending on how badly the buyer wants it." With the authorities on the case under tight pressure, many are optimistic that the tiffin set that the Nizam never used, but kept aside in a trust, will soon be found. Until then some serious questions need answering about the state of affairs of Hyderabad's cultural assets and how strongly we are willing to protect them....