Could this be the most expensive gem ever sold?

Today the 34-carat Princie diamond, once owned by the world’s  richest man, is up for auction. David Usborne tells its remarkable story

Christie’s auction house will be offering more than 300 pieces in its Magnificent Jewels spring sale in New York today. All are fitting of the title, but all eyes will be on one lot only. This is Lot 295, the Princie diamond, as rare in brilliance as it is intriguing in provenance.

One of the most famous pink diamonds ever set with cushion-cut facets, it once belonged to the last nizam, or ruler, of Hyderabad State in southern India, Mir Osman Ali Khan, proclaimed the richest man in the world by Time magazine in 1937 and the father of 149 children born of assorted wives and concubines. Other, less impressive, stones from his collection were dispatched to Princess Elizabeth as wedding gifts six years before she would become Queen Elizabeth II.

Like most stones of such pedigree, this one has been shy, not seen in public since 1960, when Sotheby’s put it on the block as the “Property of a Gentleman”. That was the nizam, who, following Indian independence, had surrendered rule and moved to Bombay, where his once-vast fortune was quickly sapped. It was bought by jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels “for a very significant 46,000 English pounds”, say the lot notes released by Christie’s.

It was at a party in Paris that the head of Van Cleef & Arpels re-christened the stone Princie after one of the guests, the cosseted 14-year-old son of Sita Devi, Maharani of Baroda, who was also known in the West as the Princess of India or “the Indian Wallis Simpson”. The two women were to meet many years later at a reception in Manhattan, which, for the real Mrs Simpson, ended in unexpected humiliation.

It is in part because the diamond has been out of view for so long that the bidding today should reach thin-air heights. (Van Cleef was later to sell it to an unidentified buyer.) Then there is its quality. It is a type-IIa pink diamond of 34.65 carats. The pink diamond set in the Queen’s Williamson Diamond brooch, part of her private collection, is 23.6 carats. Only 1 to 2 per cent of all diamonds mined are type-IIa. It is their particular purity that gives them a pink glow. “I would hedge a guess it will sell for above the $50m [£32.7m] mark,” predicts Joanna Hardy, a jewellery expert and star of Antiques Roadshow, on the website thejewelleryeditor.com. If it does, it would become the costliest gemstone sold at auction in history.

Believed to have been extracted from the legendary Golconda mines of what was the Kingdom of Hyderabad more than 300 years ago, the stone was thought to have been passed down from Nizam-ul-Mulk Asif Jah, the first nizam, who ruled between 1724 and 1748, to his successors.

“The most beautiful stones discovered in Golconda were always reserved for kings and rulers as they represented the highest power, which was then magically transferred to the owner,” the lot notes explain.

François Curiel, the chairman of Christie’s Jewellery Department, takes up the theme. “The Princie diamond brings together the legendary names of Golconda, Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda,” he says. “This rich history, combined with its rare pink hue, conveys a special charm, which will speak to all collectors in the world seeking the best of the best in gemstones.”

Mir Osman Ali Khan, the nizam, may have been one of the wealthiest people in history. (Time estimated his fortune at $33bn in today’s money.) He owned garages of Rolls-Royce limousines, hundreds of racehorses and trunks filled with silver and gold bullion. His collection included the Jacob diamond, which was valued at £100m in 2008. He used it as a paperweight. His wedding presents to Princess Elizabeth in 1947 included brooches and a necklace she is known still to wear today. That he sent his pink diamond to Sotheby’s (and accepted what seems now like a rather paltry sum in return) was an indication of how far his fortune had dwindled.

But it may be the connection to the Maharani of Baroda, Sita Devi, and her son, Princie, that also gives the stone its allure. She married the Maharajah of Baroda, a city in Gujarat now named Vadodara, after meeting him at the Madras races in 1943, even though he already had a wife. As independence from Britain approached, the couple fled to Europe, taking many of their treasures with them, settling in a mansion in Monte Carlo. A carpet made of pearls was discovered as recently as 1994 in a vault in Geneva.

It was in 1953 that the couple – they later divorced – were forced to sell assets to keep afloat. A pair of bejewelled anklets was purchased by Harry Winston, the jewellery house, which transformed them into a necklace subsequently purchased by none other than Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. In 1957, both women were invited to the same New York reception and when Sita Devi spotted the necklace she loudly observed how nice the jewels had once looked draping her feet. Aghast, the story goes, the Duchess returned it.

Tragedy left its mark in 1985, when Princie cut his throat one day after  his 40th birthday amid reports of  drug and alcohol abuse. Sita Devi died four years later, some said from a broken heart.

Diamond highlights: most expensive gems

1. £28.9m Graff pink

The 24.78-carat pink diamond was bought by London dealer Laurence Graff in 2010, who described it as “the most fabulous diamond I’ve seen in my career”.  Still the most expensive gemstone bought at auction in history, it had previously been in the hands of Harry Winston for 60 years.

2. £16.4m Wittelsbach-Graff

Again bought by Laurence Graff, this 35.56-carat grey-blue stone was bought in 2008 at auction in London. Graff then had it cut three times to remove its flaws.

3. £14.86m Perfect pink

Considered perfection by dealers and the first stone in 244 years of auction history to be graded “fancy intense pink”, this 14.23-carat gem was sold in Geneva in 2010.  The pink colouration is a result of impurities or structural defects within the stone, and those with colours intense enough are termed “fancy”.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

EBD Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?