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The 1859 bust of Duleep Singh by John Gibson RA, which sold to a British-based private collector for £1.5m at Bonhams.

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A symbolic portrait of an ultimately rather tragic figure, resonant with cross-cultural references, it found fervent admirers at Bonhams in Bond Street where it was propelled by five determined bidders to £1.5m plus premium to lead their April 19 sale of Islamic and Indian art.

Duleep Singh (1838-93) is a highly important figure in Sikh history and an object of veneration for Sikhs around the world today. The son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the so-called Lion of the Punjab, his fate is inextricably interwoven with British colonial history and politics.

Removed from his Kingdom at the age of 11 by the East India Company after the Anglo-Sikh wars, he was exiled to England becoming an exotic addition to fashionable society and a favourite of Queen Victoria, shooting on the Scottish grouse moors in the company of the Prince of Wales.

Although the exiled ruler inevitably became a focus for Sikhs in the Punjab, he spent much of his life as a country squire on a vast Norfolk estate at Elvedon and is buried in the local church.

Duleep sat for this marble bust in 1859 when visiting Rome where Gibson was based. The bust stayed with his family, passing to his second son Frederick then his daughters until Bamba, the last survivor, died in 1957. It appears to have remained in Norfolk at least until the 1970s, then surfaced at Sotheby's in a Victorian picture sale in 1985 where it realised £4200. Bonhams' vendor, a titled lady, subsequently acquired it from a St James dealer.

Bonhams had estimated the bust at £25,000-35,000 and bidding opened at £12,000, but prospective purchasers from Britain and India swiftly took it past the £500,000 mark.

Initially competition came from two bidders in the room and various telephones, but the ultimate contest that inched the hammer price up to the £1.5m mark was between a man standing at the back of the room and Bonhams' specialist Claire Penhallurick on the phone to the ultimately successful buyer.

The purchaser was said by Bonhams to be a British-based private collector.

ATG will be featuring London's Islamic sale series in next week's printed newspaper.

By Anne Crane