Elizabeth Taylor's jewels sparkled, but a collection of Indian gems might outshine them.
When the group of Indian jewelry and artifacts goes on auction today in New York, it's expected to fetch more than $115 million — breaking the record set by the late Hollywood star's jewelry collection.
Dubbed "Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence" by Christie's auction house, the trove includes nearly 400 diamonds, gemstones, ornaments and paintings, spanning about 500 years of Indian history from the Mughal Empire to the 20th century. It includes a gold and jade dagger that once belonged to Shah Jahan, the Muslim emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum to his favorite wife in the 17th century. There's also a diamond and white gold brooch with five different cuts of diamonds, including a pear brilliant-cut stone of 34.08 carats and an oval brilliant-cut diamond of 23.55 carats.
The auction will be held at New York's Rockefeller Center, where some of the jewelry has been on display since Friday.
"This landmark auction is poised to be the most valuable and precious collection of jewelry and Mughal objects to ever come to auction," Christie's says in a press release. The auction house's CEO, Guillaume Cerutti, says it "offers a milestone opportunity for collectors."
If the auction price exceeds $115.9 million, it would break the world record for jewelry sales, set by Taylor's jewelry collection, which sold for $115,932,000 in December 2011. That auction was also conducted by Christie's.
At today's auction, a lucky (wealthy) bidder may go home with Tipu Sultan's magic box — a 20-sided, golden polyhedron inscribed with numerals believed to represent ancient Greek math calculations. It was a keepsake of the 18th century ruler of the kingdom of Mysore, in southern India.
Another highlight is the Mirror of Paradise, a 52.58-carat diamond ring. The stone is from Golconda, a region of southern India famous for diamonds that lack nitrogen, and thus transmit light with unique purity. After mining for 2,000 years, Golconda stopped yielding diamonds around 1725. The ring alone is expected to go for as much as $10 million.
The vast majority of the artifacts date back to what's called the Mughal era, a period of more than 300 years between the 16th and 19th centuries, when most of India was ruled by Muslim emperors, the Mughals. The collection also features exquisite ornaments commissioned and worn by India's maharajas -- kings whose families ruled small provinces on the Indian subcontinent for generations.
"This is living history in your hand," says Rahul Kadakia, international head of jewelry at Christie's.
The trove also features some relatively modern pieces from the 20th century that were created by major Western jewelry houses such as Cartier and illustrate the fusion between India and the West. It is believed that the maharaja of Patiala, a princely state in northern India, sent trunk loads of precious stones to Cartier's workshops in Paris, to be turned into exquisite ornaments.
While many of these items once belonged to Indian royals, the collection is currently owned by Qatar's royal family. Other parts of it will go on display next year at a new museum space in Paris.
Sushmita Pathak is NPR's producer in Mumbai.