CBI launches fresh investigation to seize the two priceless gold coins believed to be smuggled out of India in the 1970s.
New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has reopened the curious case of India’s missing gold coins which were smuggled out of the country in the late 1970s.
Highly placed sources said the Indian government has now got definite proof about the location of one of the two missing coins and has pushed the country’s premier investigating agency to take a fresh relook at the case.
The CBI will follow leads once offered by the Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB) which investigated the case in the 1980s after LP Sihare, the director general of National Gallery of Modern Art, had red flagged an attempt by a private party to auction coins in Switzerland and apprised the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi about the national property being stolen.
It was Sihare's timely intervention that stopped the 1995 public auction of the jewels of the Nizams, which included the Jacob Diamond, the world's fifth largest uncut diamond.
Little progress was made by the CBI after the CEIB handed over the case. The CBI could not make any headway, ostensibly because no one could tell the agency the exact location of the coins.
Made of solid gold, the coins are majestic. One weighs 12 kg, beautifully crafted, 21 cm in diameter and the biggest in the world belonging to the Mughal period. The big coin of solid gold is covered with elaborate inscriptions in Persian and Arabic. It was minted in 1613, in the eighth regal year of the emperor, and is thought to be the only one of its kind.
The second coin, minted in 1693 during Shah Jehan's reign, is equally ornate. It weighs 1kg, also 21 cm in diameter and belonging to the same period. The coins, put together, would be worth a little over Rs 1,000 crore going by the current gold prices and the antique value.
The CBI is now working on leads that the big coin is in a museum in Kuwait and the second one should be with some private owner, possibly in the Middle East or Europe.
Jahangir’s own autobiography Tuzk-e-Jahangiri mentions the big coin. During the reign of Jahangir, the coins minted by his government grew larger and of high value. The larger ones were handed out to important officials who rendered special military services to the state.
The big coin was presented by Emperor Aurangzeb to Nawab Ghaziuddin Khan Siddiqui Bahadur, Feroze Jung I, whose son Nizam-ul-Mulk founded the Asaf Jah dynasty. For a little over two centuries, the coin passed from one generation to the next in the Nizam's family before coming into the possession of Prince Mukarram Jah, the titular 8th Nizam, heir and custodian of the incredible wealth of the Asif Jahi rulers. But the coins were not to be found from the vaults of the Nizam family.
How the coins were smuggled out
The CEIB had then told the Indian government that a top politician carried the coins in his luggage and travelled from Mumbai (then Bombay) to London in the 1970s. Under Indian rules, luggage of the VIPs is not checked like those belonging to common passengers. The CEIB probe found that the conspiracy involved the Nizam's family and senior government officials who assisted the royal family when the coins were removed from the Nizam’s palace and taken out through Bombay Airport.
In a rare instance of speedy government action, the Indian embassy in Berne, Switzerland was alerted and the Swiss government informed. The magnificent coins were offered for sale at a private auction by Habsburg, Feldman in Geneva. The coins were piece de resistance of the glittering auction at Geneva's Noga Hilton hotel. But the coins were finally not sold because of a last-minute intervention by the Indian Embassy which prevented the sale.
But the auctioneer's marketing chief Karin Hellgren told Indian diplomats that negotiations for selling the coins could take place privately with interested parties. He told the Indian official that a private offer of $10 million (about Rs 13 crore) had in fact been made but the mysterious owner of the coins had held out for a higher bid. The buyer, rumoured to be Jah himself, wanted closer to $20 million for the coins.
Among those keen on a private offer were Saudi billionaire and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, Hassanal Bolkiah (the Sultan of Brunei), and Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Socrates Onassis.
The CEIB had also informed the government that Mukarram Jah was present in Geneva when the auction was planned.
“Without the involvement of top government officials, it was not possible for the coins to be taken out of India,” says Ajay Agnihotri, the former Assistant Director General of Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB), who assisted then CEIB director, ML Wadhawan, in investigating the case. Now, the Indian government is keen to get the coins back because it genuinely believes the coins were smuggled out of India and is in the possession of some private collector.
Mukarram Jah, the grandson of the seventh Nizam and his chief beneficiary and successor-in-title, had informed the Indian government that the coins were taken away by the British before India gained independence, probably around 1945-46. He did not say who took the coins away. But the CEIB was convinced Jah was lying.
Jah, who was shuttling between the UK, Turkey and Australia, was interrogated by officials of Australian Customs twice in the presence of CEIB director Wadhawan. The CEIB informed the Finance Ministry—then headed by SB Chavan— that the coins left India in the 70s and Jah got possession of the coins in London. But during his interrogation in Australia, Jah repeatedly denied any knowledge of the coins.
“If the CBI manages to locate the coins, it will be a big one because I remember the furore which took place when newspapers carried reports of the big coin being auctioned in Switzerland many years ago. I haven’t heard anything after that,” says Mohan Guruswamy, a former advisor to the finance ninister in the late 1990s and currently a political and economic analyst.
Guruswamy says the search could be tough unless Mukarram Jah, the principal heir of the riches of the last Nizam, agrees to open up. Jah, who currently lives abroad, had returned to India for a brief period in 2013 and was faced with numerous cases filed against him by the CBI and Hyderabad Police for his alleged role in selling off the coins.
Jah told the investigators that he had come to India to clear some of his staggering debts in India, Switzerland, and Australia, his home for the last 18 years. On a conservative estimate, his total wealth in India alone hovered around Rs 50 crore in 2013.
“Jah never kept his slate clean. There was a mountain of charges against him,” says Agnihotri, adding it was the mismanagement of properties in India that made Jah attempt to auction the two coins.
“No one knows how the coins reached a Geneva bank vault. The sale did not go through because the Indian government intervened before the bids - details of which were advertised in a foreign newspaper - could be opened in Berne,” added Agnihotri. The vaults in Geneva, claim sources in the CBI, were rented by Jah.
Around the time when Indian officials were trying their best to stop the auction of the coin, Mukkaram Jah's lawyers argued that the law did not apply to antiquities taken out of India before 1947 and the coins were taken to Paris by his aunt, Nilofar Sultan, before India gained independence. In short, they confessed that the family of Nizam had taken the coins out of India.
A global hunt
The claim of the lawyers was quite different from that of Jah who had told Indian investigators that the British government had taken away the gold coins before India gained independence.
Yet, Jah was there at the sale and was expecting the bid for both coins to reach $14 million. What is interesting is that Jah still managed to borrow Rs 9.82 crore from a Swiss Bank to be returned with interest, totalling Rs 10.06 crore, by March 1989. When Jah failed to pay up, the courts were moved to freeze his assets in India and Switzerland.
“And then, the coins went missing,” said Agnihotri.
If the whereabouts are known, the Indian government would rightfully demand return of the coins since the coins were smuggled out of India and such articles must be returned as per international conventions.
“The case was handed over to the CBI by CEIB long back. And the file has not been closed. We are working on various leads to get a firm grip on the location of the coins,” a senior CBI official said on conditions of anonymity.
“The Museum of IsIamic Art in Kuwait lists such a coin and claims it is the world’s biggest. If it is the same coin, then the CBI must probe how the coin reached there. And what happened to the other coin weighing over 1 kilo,” says Agnihotri.
The CBI, it is reliably learnt, would seek help from Interpol to further its probe. One side of the probe is to locate the coins, the second side is to find out if a Swiss Court cleared the sale of the coins because its owner failed to clear debts. The Swiss Court decided on the case in 2006. Unfortunately, Indian Government never became a party to the case and was not even sent a copy of the Judgment. Interestingly, details of the judgement are with the Swiss government and also with the Cambridge University’s archives. The CBI will have to make efforts to get a copy of this judgment to ascertain India’s status up the vis-a-vis the coins.
The search for the coins will bring Jah in focus again.
Historians in Hyderabad, however, have a different story to narrate. They claim the coins left Indian shores long before the country gained Independence. “It will be great if the coins can be brought back. I do not ascribe to the story that the coins were smuggled out of India in the 70s. The coins left long before 1947 and Mukarram Jah got it back from his aunt because he needed cash badly,” claimed Mohammed Saif Ullah, seasoned historian and a member of the protocol team of the Telangana government. Saif Ullah, who had imported a catalogue of the auction from Switzerland, said the coins are someone’s property. “I do not know where the coins are but getting them back will be a tough call.”
The Indian government must prove first that the coins were illegally exported after 1947. There could be other issues as well. Switzerland is not a signatory to the international convention governing such claims. And Switzerland is known for hiding behind its usual policy of non-interference when it comes to trafficking in third world treasures.
The key to this case, claim sources in the CBI, lies in the Swiss court judgement which proves that a private sale did take place. The CBI will source a copy of the judgement first. Then, the rest will follow.Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.