Reminder: The British Still Have Our Art

The Royal Collection remains one of the largest troves of South Asian art, much of it stolen.

Sukhada Tatke

October 17, 2022

Reminder: The British Still Have Our Art
Padshahnamah, Book of Emperors (Royal Collection Trust)

In the late 18th century, Tipu Sultan, known as the Tiger of Mysore, was the most formidable opponent to the British in India. He was ahead of the curve in military technology and had developed a form of rocket artillery that North America would later independently deploy as the Congreve rocket. Fearing France’s Napoleon Bonaparte would form an alliance with Tipu Sultan, British East India Company forces stormed Srirangapatna, Mysore’s capital, in 1799. Tipu Sultan died in the ensuing battle, bringing the Anglo-Mysore wars to an end.

After the fall of Srirangapatna, British soldiers looted and pillaged objects from Tipu’s dead body and kingdom: his sword, jewelry, gold coins, arms and ammunition, fine clothes, and Quran. While the British later returned the sword to India, Christie’s auctioned Tipu’s ring for £145,000 in 2014. After changing several hands, the ring had become the private property of Fitzroy John Somerset, the great-great-grandson of the 1st Baron Raglan.

The Mysore treasures were so spectacular that historians peg the plunder of the kingdom as the point at which Britain started accumulating historical artifacts from the subcontinent. The Mysore loot became the first large component of the Royal Collection’s South Asian art. “The Tipu treasures mark a high originary point for the Royal Collection, not only because of their inherent aesthetic and monetary value but also because, as symbols of a dreaded enemy who had been vanquished, they fed eventually into the cult of British racial and cultural supremacy, became part of a mystique of imperial ascendancy,” said art critic and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote.

To this day, the Royal Collection — consisting of millions of pieces of art accumulated over multiple centuries — remains in trust by King Charles III “as sovereign for his successors and for the nation.” In the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, calls for repatriating the Koh-i-noor diamond rang loud. Yet, the same fervor hasn’t been seen for the thousands of artworks and artifacts from South Asia that remain at institutions across the United Kingdom, of which the Royal Collection is just one.