Nizam's heirs end wrangle for treasure

The late Nizam of Hyderbad was one of the world's richest - and most miserly - men. It was once said he had enough pearls to pave Piccadilly Circus. Now, after a 20-year legal battle, the Indian government has bought the Nizam's treasure from his heirs for the equivalent of £45m, though experts say the jewellery is worth five times as much.

Soon after the cheques were issued to the Nizam's 22 surviving heirs on Wednesday, the dazzling collection was unearthed from a Bombay bank vault where it had remained, untouched and unseen, for 44 years because of legal wrangles. Then, the treasure was transported to New Delhi on a special aircraft. It will be put on display in a Hyderabad museum, rivalling, some Indian newspapers say, the Crown Jewels.

The crowning jewel in this collection of 173 pieces is Jacob's diamond, the size of a plum. The last Nizam used this 184-carat diamond, believed to be the third largest in the world, as a paperweight. Also in the treasure chest of the Muslim ruler, whosekingdom covered the south-east state now known as Andhra Pradesh, are 22 big, flawless emeralds, a pair of gold bracelets weighing half a pound and studded with 270 diamonds which had originally belonged to the Russian tsars.

One necklace alone has more than 370 pearls, and it was said that the earlier Nizams had the habit of adorning their slaves with such necklaces so that their body oils would give the pearls an extra shine. Such epicurean fetishes were unknown to the seventh and last Nawab, Osman Ali Khan, who preferred eating off a tin plate even though he had gold dinner settings for 100 people.

The Nizam, who died after India's independence, and his many heirs were barred from removing the collection from the Bombay bank by the government which claimed it was a national treasure.

The legal battle over the Nizam's hoard dragged on for so long that nearly half his beneficiaries grew old and died. Finally, the Supreme Court in 1988 ruled that the dispute should be settled by a "referee". The auctioneers Sotheby's and Christie's wer e called in, and they valued the treasure in 1991 at nearly £250m, Indian newspapers said. But the government insisted it was worth only £15m.

The Supreme Court gave the government until yesterday to come up with a more reasonable offer, otherwise the Nizam's relatives would be free to sell the collection outside India. Five days short of the deadline, the government upped its offer.

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