Sikh protests stop Sotheby's auction of 'religious relic'

Sotheby's has withdrawn a rare 18th-century steel armour plate from public sale after protesters claimed it was a religious relic which may have been owned by one of Sikhism's holiest figures, Guru Gobind Singh.

The auction house confirmed that the artefact, which had been estimated to fetch up to £12,000 in London today, was no longer up for sale after the person offering it requested its purchase to be arranged privately with a member of the Sikh community.

India's most senior Sikhs had led a protest campaign against the prospect of the relic being sold to an outsider, arguing that it may once have belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, regarded as one of the most important defenders of the religion.

The Indian-based Sikh committee, SGPC, which oversees the country's temples, welcomed the news. Avtar Singh Makkar, its president, who is said to have written to the Queen to request a ban on the sale, told The Times of India that if it was proved to belong to the Guru, "the Central Sikh Museum is the right place for such treasures".

He added: "The auction was supposed to be in England but it has been stopped, which is a very good thing. We have set up a team to look into the authenticity of the armour."

Originally Sotheby's had likened the style of the armour plate to a similar item in a collection in the Punjab which may have belonged to the Guru. The catalogue entry read: "This side plate is virtually identical to a single plate in a complete set of charaina (back, front and two side plates) in the collection of the royal house of Patiala in Punjab.

"According to family tradition, the set was owned by Guru Gobind Singh before it was presumably gifted to one of their ancestors. The existence of this plate from another charaina set points to the possibility that the Guru commissioned more than one such set. The Akal Ustat verse that adorns this side plate appeared on other weapons owned by Guru Gobind Singh."

In an attempt to end any confusion, Sotheby's said it had not found or been offered any evidence to suggest that the armour plate had once been owned by Guru Gobind Singh.

A statement read: "We do not deem the piece to be a relic of the Guru. We regret if our catalogue notes might not have been sufficiently clear on this point. Should Sotheby's receive any information that provides evidence of ownership, we will consider it with the utmost seriousness."

Peter Bance, a Sikh author and historian, thought the SGPC overreacted without clarifying the facts behind the armour's provenance. "I think the SGPC's comments were inappropriate. They rushed in on the strength of rumours on the internet and in the media and caused a frenzy. They should have checked its provenance. Sotheby's has clearly said it was not the Guru's armour," he said.

The tenth Guru of the Sikh faith, Gobind Singh was born in the 17th century and was both a warrior and a poet. His establishment of the military order, Khalsa, is one of the most important events in Sikh-ism. He fought 14 battles with the Mughals and he is credited with completing the Sikh holy book, the Dasam Granth.

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