A Great Fruit Bat helps Bonhams Islamic and Indian art sale take wing with £4.5m auction

An important painting of a Great Indian fruit bat or flying fox (Pteropus giganteus) with its 1.5 metre wingspan sold for £458,500 at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art sale in London yesterday (8.4.14). The sale achieved a total of £4.5 million.

This pen and ink, watercolour with gum arabic, heightened with bodycolour, on watermarked paper, from the Calcutta Collection of Lady Impey and painted by the artist Bhawani Das, had been estimated to sell for £80,000-£120,000, but its final price was four times higher than expected.

The picture has gone to a private collection said Claire Penhallurick, Head of Islamic and Indian Art at Bonhams. She said the sale had performed strongly across all the sectors represented but that Indian miniatures had done particularly well.

Sir Elijah Impey was the East India Company's Chief Justice of Bengal from 1774 to 1782. He was a well-known patron of Indian artists, but his wife, Mary, Lady Impey, who joined him in Calcutta in 1777, was particularly interested in the flora and fauna of the surrounding area, creating her own menagerie. She then commissioned studies of animals and plants from various artists from the nearby city of Patna, the most senior of whom were the Muslim Shaykh Zayn-al-Din, and the Hindus Ram Das and Bhawani Das, the painter of the present lot.

The precision of these artists' technique, which stemmed from the Mughal tradition, appealed to British patrons, and the technique and the subject-matter have become known as 'Company School'. The series commissioned by Lady Impey (as well as others in a similar style by unknown artists) are particularly striking because of their large size, using sheets of English watermarked paper. There were 326 works in the original series, which were brought back to England with the Impeys in 1783, and were sold at Phillips (now Bonhams) in London in 1810.

Miniature paintings once owned by the last Nawab of Bengal and by the East Indian Company Resident at Lucknow:

Two rare and beautiful illustrated manuscripts covering many aspects of courtly life and epic deeds – one with 110 exquisite images and one with 65.

The first, The Book of Kings, is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000 sold for £110,500, and the second, The Book of Akbar, is estimated to sell for £30,000 to £50,000 made £100,900.

The Book of Kings, the great Persian epic poem by Firdausi, originally composed in the 11th Century, is lavishly illustrated with one hundred and ten miniatures, copied by the scribe Nizam-ad-Din, formerly in the library of the last Nawab of Bengal, North India, probably Kashmir, dated 3rd Jumada al-Thani AH 1244/ 11th November AD 1828.

Faridun Jah was the last Nawab of Bengal. He was born at Murshidabad in 1830 and succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in October 1838. The East India Company reduced his honours from a 19-gun to a 13-gun salute for his alleged complicity in the murder of two servants in 1854. Following a long period of financial embarrassment, he was forced to renounce all his rights in return for the liquidation of his debts and a generous annual pension of £10,000. He left for England in 1869, living in Maidenhead, and remained there until his return to India in 1881, though not before abdicating in favour of his eldest son in 1880. He died of cholera at Murshidabad in 1884

The second illustrated manuscript, the Book of Akbar, (Books I, II and III) is lavishly illustrated with sixty-five miniatures. It is almost certain that it comes from the collection of Nathaniel Middleton (1750-1807), East India Company Resident at Lucknow, 1776-1782. Created in North India, probably Murshidabad, late 18th Century, the Persian manuscript on cream-coloured paper, features 508 leaves.

Middleton arrived in India shortly before 1769 and, after service at Cossimbazar and Murshidabad, was appointed in 1773 by the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, as his representative at the court of Shuja-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Oudh. Asaf-ud-Daula had succeeded to the throne in 1775: in 1777 Middleton, now Resident, persuaded him to accept Hastings' plan to make over the Nawab's troops to Company service, thus in effect allowing the British occupation of Oudh.

Bonhams Islamic and Indian art sales include a wide range of traditional Islamic art, early pottery and metalwork, Arabic and Persian manuscripts, Ottoman and Turkish art, Safavid and Qajar art, Mogul and other Indian works of art, Modern and Contemporary South Asian art and Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to https://www.bonhams.com

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