Golden Gallstone Holder for Auction at Bonhams

Bonhams is selling a fine gold 18th Century Indian bezoar-stone holder from Gujarat, an object that once held a naturally produced object from the bodies of animals which was believed to have the power to cure plague and deflect witchcraft.

It is estimated to sell for £10,000-15,000 at Bonhams next sale of Indian and Islamic Art on Thursday 7th October in New Bond Street, London.

Bezoar stones are found in the stomachs of ruminants such as lamas, deer, sheep and antelopes, and were said to consist of gallstones and animal hair. The original bezoar stones came from goats found in the mountains of Western Persia. They were introduced to Europe from the Middle East in the 11th Century and they remained popular there until the 18th Century.

Its name is actually derived from the Persian word padzhar (pad meaning ‘protector’ and zhar meaning ‘poison’). According to Garcia da Orta, the best ones came from India or Persia; in fact, the word ultimately came to be used to describe the Persian wild goat. An Arabic manuscript, Risalah fi khawass al-panzhar, a treatise on the occult properties of the bezoar stone, dated AH 1067/ AD 1657, can be found in the National Library of Medicine.

Kristina Sanne, Head of Indian and Islamic Art, at Bonhams, comments: “Besides the sheer beauty of its construction this object comes loaded with a range of cultural meanings and values, some of which still hold true in certain parts of the world. Personally speaking I cannot say how much credence to lend to the protective power of bezoar stones against witchcraft and other bad things, but the object is of itself fascinating.”

Bezoar stones were highly-prized for their medicinal qualities, which included being an antidote to poison, a purgative, and even a cure for the plague, in addition to its powers as an amulet. Napoleon Bonaparte, after his final confinement on St Helena, was thought from the analysis of samples of his cranial hair to have been poisoned by arsenic. Legend has it that he had been given bezoar stones to protect him, which he promptly threw into the fireplace. Elizabeth I wore rings inset with bezoar stones, as did many rulers of the time.

The gold latticework ball that Bonhams is selling consists of two hemispherical sections, each of pierced openwork form with chased detailing, the design consisting of a repeat floral trellis with stylised flowerheads joined by quatrefoil leaf forms. It is 5.5 cm diameter.

The provenance of the holder is that it came into the ownership of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Bowser (1749 – 1833); and by descent to the current owners, a private Canadian family of Scottish origin.

Four bezoar-stone holders variously silver, silver-gilt and gold, and all with openwork floral grounds can be found in the Hull Grundy Gift at the British Museum, London .

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