For a few days in the 1920s, according to a cutting from a local paper in Pennsylvania, two children in Leicestershire played with an imperial Indian gemstone, a ruby-red spinel the size of a walnut hanging on a golden chain with a tassel of seed pearls.
Details of the story are sketchy, but the gem was real: engraved 400 years ago in minute Persian script with the names of three Indian emperors, it comes up for auction at Sotheby’s next month, estimated at up to £80,000.
The article was in the Shamokin Dispatch, which ceased publication in the 1930s.
Under the headline “$25,000 ruby, once pride of great Indian mogul, plaything for children”, it said Mrs Graham Pole was travelling to northern England when she lost the gem: the gold chain is 20th century, so she may have worn it as a necklace.
According to the story it was found by the track in Leicestershire by a railway worker, Joseph H Wade, who brought the pretty “piece of red glass” home as a toy for his twins.
He only realised the truth when he read a newspaper account of the loss a fortnight later. Wade found the stone in a corner where his children had thrown it, and handed it in. It is not known whether Pole rewarded Wade for his honesty.
Since it is unlikely that the Shamokin Dispatch had a special correspondent in Leicestershire – the town’s current population slightly exceeds 7,000 – the story must have come through a news agency from an English source. But Benedict Carter, an expert on Middle Eastern art at Sotheby’s, has spent months researching the gem and can find no trace of one.
“They did also glam up the story a bit,” he said, adding that it was not true that the gemstone was once owned by the queen for whom the Taj Mahal was built.
Carter suspects the jewel came back from India with Pole’s daughter Dorothy, who was married to Hugh Ruttledge, deputy high commissioner in Lucknow and Almora in the 1920s. Once recovered, it stayed in the family – until now.
The Mughal emperors were fond of spinels, gemstones ranging in colour from pink to wine, which they called rubies.
“Carving names into such stones was a highly skilled art which added to their value,” Carter said. “These are engraved in a beautiful, flowing Persian script, which you can barely appreciate the details of under a jeweller’s loupe. I’ve seen spinels with one name, occasionally two. I’ve never seen one before with three names.”
If the Shamokin account is true, the twins may still be alive – and Carter would love to hear from them.
The 55-carat spinel will be auctioned at Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale in London on 26 April.
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