A rare and important sardonyx Portrait Cameo of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58) India, circa 1630-40
Lot 380
A rare and important sardonyx Portrait Cameo of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58)
India, circa 1630-40
Sold for £ 574,250 (US$ 765,863) inc. premium

Lot Details
A rare and important sardonyx Portrait Cameo of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58) India, circa 1630-40
A rare and important sardonyx Portrait Cameo of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58)
India, circa 1630-40
oval, the figure cut from the brown layer of stone, standing out against the white layer marble-like, depicted facing left, wearing elaborate turban with pearls, tunic and jewels, in bloodstone mount
the cameo 4.1 x 3.3 cm.; the bloodstone mount 5.8 x 5 cm.


  • Provenance: The estate of the late Mary Fry, nee Fane, Fulbeck Hall, Lincolnshire; her sale, Sotheby’s, The Contents of Fulbeck Hall, Lincolnshire, 8th October 2002, lot 460.

    Mary Fry was a descendant of Mildmay Fane, 1st Earl of Westmorland. The Fane connection with the family seat, Fulbeck Hall, dates back to 1622, but the Earl’s second son, Sir Francis Fane, only inherited the hall in 1632.

    The collection at Fulbeck Hall was eclectic, and included a number of Indian items, such as furniture and textiles, as well as a gold bangle belonging to Ranjit Singh. It is not known how this cameo was acquired by Mary Fry, but we do know that three generations of the Fane family were connected with India.

    In 1835 General Sir Henry Fane (1779-1840), a favourite with Wellington, was made Commander in Chief in India and was known to have brought back some of the Indian items that were in the house. Sir Henry was notable for making a treaty with Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikhs in 1837, and as a result of this his daughter Isabella was given a gold bangle by the Sikh leader. William Princep Fane spent a number of years in service in the East India Company and brought pieces of art back from India. He was married to the daughter of Thomas Dashwood, a director of the East India Company. Other Fane family members spent time in India whilst serving in the British army.

    The present lot is an important addition to an existing group of just three cameos depicting Shah Jahan. The other known pieces are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Robert Skelton et al, The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule, London, 21 April – 22 August 1982, nos. 376); the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Skelton et al, 1982, no. 377) ; the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, the latter only coming to light in 1982 (Manuel Keene with Salam Kaoukji, The Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals, London, 2001, no. 9.11). In summer 1982, two of the three images of Shah Jahan known at the time were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, The Indian Heritage: Court Life under Mughal Rule (Skelton et al, 1982, nos. 376-7).

    The Indian Heritage exhibition catalogue suggested that this small group of cameos was made or derived from the work of European craftsmen working at the Mughal court (Skelton et al., 1982, p. 123). European travellers mention a number of French and Italian lapidaries at the courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, but no actual name is recorded (E. Babelon, Catalogue des camees antiques et modernes de la Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, 1897, I, pp. 197-8, no. 366, II, pl. XLII).

    A cameo is a carving from a stone of two or more parallel layers of contrasting colours. The head or figure to be worked is cut in one layer, and the contrasting colour serves as a background. Typical stones used for cameos include black and white onyx, sardonyx, carnelian onyx, and onyx jasper. (Francis J. Sperisen, The Art of the Lapidary, Milwaukee, 1950, p. 300). In this case, the material is sardonyx with a white ground, perhaps reflecting the taste for white ground enamel in jewelled objects at this time.

    The art of hardstone carving in India dated back to prehistory; most surviving hardstone carvings, however, belong to the Mughal period (1526-1858). In the tradition of Muslim courts, Shah Jahan was trained in the art of hardstone carving and during this reign, the quality of hardstone carving reached its zenith, the finest surviving example from the period being Shah Jahan’s own wine cup that is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Skelton et al, 1982, no. 356); on a larger scale, the emperor’s interest is reflected in the extraordinary pietra dura panels on the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

    This cameo is notable not only because of its rarity, but for the quality of its carving, the stone being used to its maximum effect by carving and polishing techniques contrasting fine details such as the smooth texture of the skin with the matt of his beard. The image depicts Shah Jahan later in life and is a rare image of majesty in-keeping with the European tradition at the time. The very nature and small scale of this piece, which would have been the ultimate in luxury items, suggest that it may have been commissioned by the emperor himself or a high-ranking official at the Mughal court.

    This rare and beautiful image of Shah Jahan is an exciting addition to a small group of interesting and highly accomplished objects, awaiting further academic investigation.
Auction information

This sale is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future sales, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this sale, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £175,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £175,001 to £3,000,000 the Hammer Price
12.5% from £3,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

For payment information please refer to the sale catalogue.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

Similar Items