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When Calgary billionaire Bob Dhillon placed the winning bid on a 19th-century curved sword in a recent British auction, he didn’t see himself as merely purchasing the sword -- he was liberating it. The sword is believed to have been owned by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire in India, and is considered a rare artifact.
When Calgary billionaire Bob Dhillon placed the winning bid on a 19th-century curved sword in a recent British auction, he didn’t see himself as merely purchasing the sword -- he was liberating it. The sword is believed to have been owned by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire in India, and is considered a rare artifact.

Sikhs buy back their history one bid at a time, but say museum space is a hard sell Add to ...

When the curved, 19th-century sword from India was put up for sale by Mullock’s, a British auction house, a buzz spread through Canada’s small community of Sikh history buffs. The sword, believed to have come from the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire in India, sparked international interest as well – but it was Calgary billionaire Bob Dhillon who had the winning bid.

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“I just didn’t want it to go into the hands of another collector. I didn’t want it to go from another safety deposit box to another safety deposit box,” said Mr. Dhillon, a practising Sikh who made his fortune in real estate as CEO of MainStreet Equity Corp.

Neither Mullock’s nor Mr. Dhillon are revealing the winning bid, but it is rumoured to be well above the estimated preauction value of between $18,331 and $27,497.

In the last few decades, the market for Sikh art and artifacts has boomed, driven by demand from wealthy Sikhs looking to reclaim a part of their heritage.

After the region of Punjab, where the Sikh Empire was based, was annexed by the British in the middle of the 19th century, the sword and many other relics such as the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond were transported to England, while others were auctioned on the spot in just a few days.

Now, as rare curios return to the hands of Canadian Sikhs such as Mr. Dhillon, tensions have arisen: Museums say they’ve been priced out of the market, while Sikh collectors – willing to donate parts of their collections – say they struggle to find permanent, public homes for these pieces of history.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been a huge surge of what are classified as Sikh objects entering the market,” said Deepali Dewan, senior curator of South Asian Arts & Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. “Because of the demand mostly coming from the Sikh community, the prices have skyrocketed … it has priced museums out of the market.”

The ROM’s entire South Asia collection contains about 7,000 items, but just a fraction are on display. The small portion of Sikh items compete for attention with Buddhist statues and thousand-year-old copper weapons from North India. The most valuable Sikh item, a manuscript from the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was acquired through a private dealer who had purchased it at an auction, Ms. Dewan said. In Ms. Dewan’s dozen years at the ROM, she says she cannot recall any member of the public donating a Sikh artifact to the museum.

But Lally Marwah, who has been collecting Sikh paintings since the 1960s, says that from the perspective of collectors, it’s not for lack of trying. Mr. Dhillon’s sword purchase inspired a long e-mail conversation by collectors across the country over the need for a permanent space for these items, he says.

“I think there’s a desire to see these pieces in a museum setting and I know there were several attempts made to meet the curator at the ROM to see [them],” said Mr. Marwah, the president of quality management consultancy SQS Solutions. “I appreciate that people have lives and so on, but … I didn’t get the sense there was a very enthusiastic interest in pursuing it.”

Ms. Dewan says she has never discussed Mr. Marwah’s collection with him. Mississaugan Amritpal Pannu, who has one of the largest collections of Sikh coins in the world, says he has invited Ms. Dewan to his home and various events to look at his collection, but she has always declined. Ms. Dewan said their schedules “haven’t coincided.”

“I think the ROM would be very open to discussing any donation,” she said. “The idea that there isn’t a desire seems not accurate.”

Mr. Dhillon says he hasn’t yet planned where he will display his sword, which has “Ranjit Singh” engraved below a silhouette of the warrior king sitting on a cushion. He says he dreams of one day starting a travelling exhibition of Sikh art and artifacts so Canadians from coast to coast can see them – perhaps even at the ROM.

Although Canada’s Sikh population is large – 1.4 per cent of the population follows Sikhism (compared to 1.9 per cent in India) – none of the major galleries or museums has a sizable permanent collection devoted to Sikh history in India. Even internationally, representation of Sikh history in major museums is limited, Ms. Dewan says.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum opened a permanent collection of Sikh art in 2003, made up largely of items donated by one Sikh art collector. In 2004, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened a three-year exhibit on Sikh history. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London curated an exhibition on the Sikh Empire in 1999. When it was brought to the ROM the following year, Mr. Marwah helped fill holes in the collection with loaned artifacts from Canadian Sikhs. He says he and others expected the exhibit would pave the way to a permanent collection, but that never happened.

Pardeep Singh Nagra hopes to fill the void. In early April, he opened the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, a modest space in the Great Punjab Business Centre – a plaza in Mississauga. For now, it has a small collection: photographs of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, coins, first-edition books on Sikh history. Mr. Nagra says he’s not worried by the way prices of Sikh artifacts have shot up – what’s important is who buys them and what their intentions are. “Are people collecting it just to say, ‘I have it,’ or are people collecting it to say, ‘I collect it because I want to bring it back available to our community’s hands?’”

While Mr. Marwah has not yet visited the Mississauga museum, he says he prefers institutions such as the ROM because “there’s some assurance of continuity and the infrastructure there to sustain them.”

“I applaud these smaller initiatives and I think they’re well-intentioned,” he said, “but if one had any serious pieces one would want to donate, then you’d definitely look to giving it to a major museum.”

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