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The year was 1928. The Maharaja of Patiala walked into luxury jeweller Cartier's Paris store with a trunk bulging with precious stones, and left with the Patiala necklace, the world's largest commission with 2,930 diamonds weighing almost 1,000 carats. Nuggets such as these abound in any conversation with Amin Jaffer, the International Director of Asian Art at auction house Christie's. On a visit to Delhi for the India Art Fair (IAF), Jaffer was just as upbeat about the works on display.
"The fair had some good-quality art. I had invited some collectors, who made purchases," says Jaffer, 43, who has a prominent presence in the art circuit in India, and often interacts with art lovers. When art enthusiast Karen Stone Talwar brought a group of art afficianados to the IAF, Jaffer held a talk for them. "It is important to educate the audience," says Jaffer, a former senior curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Jaffer's own association with art began with reading stories about India. Growing up in Rwanda, he would flip through coffee-table books on Indian art and architecture. "I was fascinated by the elaborate designs and the Taj Mahal," he recalls. A vacation to his aunt's house in Brussels when he was 10, further promoted this interest. She introduced him to Amar Chitra Katha, where he read about the Mughals and the Ramayana. "I knew I wanted to pursue art, I just did not know what," he says. That clarity came years later, at the University of Toronto, where he opted for Art instead of Economics. "My mother knew, but my father was told after the course was over. He asked me what I would do next, and I said a Phd," says Jaffer, adding, "I'm not involved in the family business of manufacturing packaging products, but I travel for board meetings four-five times a year. I don't understand it well though."
Art comes more instinctively. He admits that in the early '90s, it was sheer luck that led him to the office of the dean at V&A Museum, when he wanted to know more about an Indian ivory chair on display. "I was told that the information was not available and was offered to do a Phd on furniture from British India," says he. Soon, he was on a flight to India, where he spent six months. The data led to his first publication, Furniture from British India & Ceylon (2001).
"India has a long association with luxury, it dates back to the 17th century. Not just the kings, the court were also patrons," says Jaffer. He says that in 1882, the Nawab of Bahawalpur commissioned luxury brand Christofle to design a silver bed with life-size nudes. The four naked figures were European, representing women of France, Spain, Italy and Greece.
Anecdotes such as these comprise Jaffer's publications, Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India (2006) and Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts (2009). Pages of these books reveal a history of luxury in India that is largely unknown. In the 1930s, for instance, a Maharaja commissioned Van Cleef & Arpels to create a gold aquarium for his pet tree frog, and Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda had a fashion house design a tongue scraper in gold.
Jaffer is currently working on a book on museums. "It will be out in 2014," he says. Also keeping him busy are developments in the world of art. Recent sales that excite him include SH Raza's Saurashtra that went under the hammer in 2010 for Rs 16.42 crore, and an untitled Tyeb Mehta work showing a hand-pulled rickshaw that sold for Rs 14 crore in 2011.
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