Thursday, March 5, 2009

Gandhi's items sold for USD 1.8 million

As a commentator said:

It is really outrageous that British who looted off the items from the countries that they so brutally occupied are still able to make money from this. The gall is that these sellers try to blackmail Asian countries by giving ultimatums - either improve the health care for poor, improve human rights or lose the items. Imagine if the tables were turned and items from Buckingham Palace or White house were being auctioned in India and China and these countries asking US and England to improve the race relations or else..
— Angela

Gandhi's items sold for USD 1.8 million
6 Mar 2009,

NEW YORK: After a high drama, Mahatma Gandhi's five personal items, including the iconic round eye glasses, finally went under the hammer here and were bought for USD 1.8 million by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya.

The auction went off despite the owner of Gandhi's prized memorabilia, James Otis, saying he has decided not to sell the items in the light of controversy.

The items which went under the hammer also included a pocket watch, a pair of sandals and a plate and bowl besides the rimmed glasses used by Mahatma Gandhi.

The prized memorabilia of the Father of Nation is expected to return to the country soon as the Antiquorum Auctioneers will handover the articles to Mallya within two weeks.

Tony Bedi, bidding on behalf of Vijay Mallya, said the purchase meant that the revered independence leader's glasses, sandals, pocket watch, and plate and bowl would now return to India.

Bedi said Mallya planned to donate them to his country. "I am sure all Indians will be pleased that these Gandhi items will be coming home," Bedi told reporters after the dramatic auction at Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York. .

Cheers and clapping broke out when the hammer came down.

Indian businessmen and others with links to the country packed the auction room, joining frenzied bidding to ensure that the memorabilia did not go to another country.

Earlier, speaking to reporters here, Otis said: "In the last few hours, I have decided, in the light of the controversy, not to sell Gandhi's personal items."

Otis' move came after intense negotiations between him and Indian diplomats at the Indian Consulate in New York.

Otis earlier in the day set new conditions including that India shift priorities from military spending to health care especially for the poor if he has to call off the auction.


March 5, 2009, 10:36 am
Gandhi Items Sold for $1.8 Million
By A. G. Sulzberger AND Jennifer 8. Lee
Gandhi itemsUli Seit for

The New York Times

Updated, 6:28 p.m. | After intense protests from India’s government and the Indian press, Mohandas K. Gandhi’s eyeglasses and some of his other belongings were sold on Thursday afternoon for $1.8 million at an auction in Manhattan, after last-minute attempts to halt the sale of the items.

The buyer was identified as Vijay Mallya, an Indian liquor and airline executive who owns the company that makes Kingfisher beer. A representative for Mr. Mallya, Tony Bedi, did the bidding and later announced that the belongings would be returned to India for public display, but it was not clear whether they would be turned over to the government, as some officials have demanded.

Indian officials had maintained that the auction — scheduled to be completed on Thursday afternoon in Manhattan — was illegal, but also that they were continuing to negotiate with the owner, James Otis, over a possible resolution. Ultimately, the government and Mr. Otis were not successful in halting the auction.

The bidders included a dozen people in the room, 30 people on the phone, and about two dozen people who submitted written bids. The auction house said it would keep possession of the items for two weeks in order to make sure there were no legal claims over ownership. The second highest bid was a $1.75 million bid submitted online from Britain, said the auction house.

As soon as Lot No. 364, the Gandhi items, came up for sale shortly after 3 p.m., a hush settled across the room and a slide show of Gandhi was displayed, with a recording of piano music.

While the bidding increments were originally set to $10,000, within a matter of seconds the price, fueled by Internet and phone offers, escalated up to $200,000 and then started jumping by $50,000 and $100,000 increments. Within two minutes the bidding hit $1 million.

At that point, the contest became a bidding war between Mr. Bedi, representing Mr. Mallya, and Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s Auction House, representing a former Indian cricketer, Dilip Doshi, who now works for a company that distributes Montblanc pens and other luxury items. After a phone bidder declined to push Mr. Bedi’s bid at $1.8 million, Mr. Bedi was declared the winner. The room burst into applause. Mr. Ettinger said afterwards that Mr. Doshi was trying to buy the items on behalf of the Indian government.

The story has dominated headlines in India over several days.

The confusing situation culminated Thursday afternoon as a throng of journalists gathered at the East 57th Street headquarters of Antiquorum Auctioneers, which is handling the sale. Shortly after 1 p.m., its chairman, Robert Maron, said that despite some news reports that Mr. Otis had decided to pull out, the auction would proceed. “There is a lot of propaganda because the Indian government is trying to get this item,” Mr. Maron said. “The consigner has not pulled the item. The auction is not going to stop. In two hours, we’ll know the outcome,” he said.

But around 2:30 p.m., Ravi Batra, a lawyer who said he was representing the owner, Mr. Otis, a Los Angeles peace activist, pro bono, entered the auction house, and announced that Mr. Otis was trying to halt the sale. Shortly later, Mr. Batra was asked to leave.

Escorting me off the premises is the same as escorting James Otis and his wishes off the premises,” he said as he was leaving. He criticized the auction house for trying to make money on “the altar of Gandhi’s legacy.” Mr. Batra said, “The right to sell belongs solely and singularly to James Otis and not to Antiquorum.”

Robert Maron, the chairman of the auction house, declined to comment on Mr. Otis’s last-minute change of heart. “We fully complied with the consigner’s wishes,” he said, referring to Mr. Otis. “We now have a fiduciary obligation to the buyer.”

Mr. Bedi, the representative of Mr. Mallya, the winning bidder, who was in Geneva on Thursday, acknowledged that the circumstances of the auction were unusual. “The owner of the items, he had a double mind at the last moment,” Mr. Bedhi said, adding that he did not think Mr. Otis’s change of heart would prevent the sale from being finalized.

“He’s really pleased with the purchase,” Mr. Bedi said of his client, Mr. Mallya. “He is bringing the heritage of the items back to India.”

Inside the auction room was a mix between elite Indian-born businessmen and diehard watch collectors. One of the potential bidder was Sant Singh Chatwal, an Indian-American businessman who is close to former President Bill Clinton and who founded the Bombay Palace restaurants and Hampshire Hotels and Resorts.

“I made up my mind to go up to maybe half a million,” Mr. Chatwal, who is interested in bidding on behalf of the Indian government, said in a phone interview. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“Anything when it comes to Gandhi is emotional, sentimental and patriotic when it comes to Indians,” Shyan Gulati, chief executive of the Infopeople Corporation, an information technology company based on Wall Street, who described the scene at the auction house as a Who’s Who of New York’s Indian elite. “In the last ten years, Indian professionals are doing extremely well all over the world and they’d like to contribute.”

Mr. Otis offered on Wednesday to donate the items to India if the government agreed to sharply increase spending on the poor or create an international traveling exhibition about Gandhi that would include the items scheduled for auction — among them Gandhi’s trademark steel-rimmed spectacles, a Zenith pocket watch, a pair of sandals and an eating bowl and plate.

But in New Delhi on Thursday, a junior foreign minister, Anand Sharma, rejected the demands, which he said would have infringed on the country’s sovereignty, The Associated Press reported. The planned auction has raised an uproar in India, where many people feel the items are part of the country’s cultural legacy. The auction house, Antiquorum Auctioneers, based on East 57th Street, had set a reserve price, or minimum bid, at $20,000 to $30,000.

Earlier on Thursday, Tushar Gandhi, 49, a great-grandson of Gandhi who heads the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and a writer and lecturer on nonviolence, said in a phone interview from Mumbai, “I am not going to rejoice ’til those items are handed over to the government of India.” He added, “I am apprehensive at this moment about what is going to happen.”

But after the auction, Tushar Gandhi said, “I am very happy now. Now the things will come back to India to where it rightly belongs.” He said of Mr. Mallya, “He will give them to government to display i a museum. I do not have any reason for not to believe him. I am happy and relieved now.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked India’s embassy in the United States to do everything possible to secure the items, and the country’s culture minister, Ambika Soni, even vowed to “enter the auction if required as a last resort.”

However, the Delhi High Court ordered an injunction to stop the auction in response to a petition filed by the Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that Gandhi started and that was designated as his legal heir. (Mr. Otis’s items were acquired legally; some of them had been given away Gandhi himself.)

The Indian government said that news of the injunction was passed to both the auction house and Mr. Otis, but the auction house said the Indian court had no jurisdiction in the United States.

“The government can’t participate because this would be contempt of court,” Prabhu Dayal, India’s consul general in New York, said in an interview on Thursday morning. “This is getting more complicated.”

The Times of India noted that the National Gandhi Museum runs a brisk trade in replicas of Gandhi’s belongings, including replicas of his nail cutter (250 rupees, or $4.85 at the current exchange rate), glasses (450 rupees, or $8.73) and watch (800 rupees, or $15.52).

Mr. Dayal initially told The New York Times that Mr. Otis was scheduled to go to the consul general’s office in New York around 10 a.m. Thursday for negotiations, but Ashok Kumar, a spokesman for the consulate, later said that Mr. Otis had not visited the building. There is a large image of Gandhi in the entryway to the consulate, on East 64th Street.

The auction began on Wednesday and concluded Thursday. Bids were taken in person, over the phone, online and in writing.

The auction house argued that it was too late for Mr. Otis to withdraw from the sale. “Anyone who consigns an item for sale has entered a legally binding agreement to put that item up for sale,” Julien Schaerer, an official at the auction house. Asked if Mr. Otis had tried to pull the items out of the auction, Mr. Schaerer declined to comment.

Before the auction began, about 40 bidders had registered, from Australia, Germany, Austria, India, Canada and the United States, among other countries. (In comparison, there were only six registered bidders in October for a watch belonging to Albert Einstein, which sold for almost $600,000.)

Among the potential bidders was Himadri Roy, 72, who had flown in from Montreal at the last minute to take part in the auction and was walking around in the auction house on Thursday morning. Mr. Roy said he had met Gandhi when he was 10 years old, when he had placed a garland of flowers around Gandhi’s head and Gandhi had taken it off and placed it on him. He still has those flowers, he said.

Mr. Roy is an engineer who has profited from real estate investments. “I just want to bid and take our stuff back,” he said. He grew teary as he looked at the Gandhi items on display. “Now I have some money. I want to hold on for a while and then maybe donate it.”

For the first time, Antiquorum Auctioneers, which focuses on watches, is requiring banking references, said Mr. Maron, the chairman.

Recently, Cai Mingchao, a collector and auctioneer, raised an uproar after he submitted two winning bids for bronze sculptures from China’s Qing Dynasty at a Christie’s auction in Paris. Mr. Cai later refused to pay for the items, saying he had deliberately sabotaged the auction because the sculptures had been illegally looted in the 19th century from an imperial palace outside Beijing.

“We are concerned about what happened at Christie’s,” Mr. Maron said in a phone interview.

Mr. Otis has said that he plans to use the proceeds from the sale to promote pacifist causes. One of his two proposals to the Indian government would have required the country to raise spending on the poor to 5 percent of gross domestic product, which would cost tens of billions of dollars. The other proposal would have required a world tour of the Gandhi-related items in at least 78 countries — the number of years Gandhi lived — to draw attention to his principles of nonviolence.

Mr. Sharma, the junior foreign minister, rejected those terms, saying that Gandhi himself “would not have agreed to conditions.” He added, “The government of India representing the sovereign people of this republic cannot enter into such agreements where it involves specific areas of allocation of resources.”

Gandhi, who advocated nonviolent resistance to British rule in India, died in 1948 after being shot by a militant nationalist, months after India’s independence was proclaimed.

Past auctions of Gandhi memorabilia have faced similar controversy. In 2007, a letter written by Gandhi was withdrawn from a London auction to allow the Indian government to acquire it.

The current controversy has become front-page news all over India and across the Indian diaspora. Among the many critics who have urged the government to find a way to return the items to India are Ujjal S. Dosanjh, a former premier of British Columbia and a member of the Canadian Parliament.

Reporting was contributed by Sewell Chan and Joel Stonington from New York and Hari Kumar from New Delhi.

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