Consignor of auctioned Gandhi items gets cold feet over the deal

NEW YORK (AP) – Mohandas Gandhi’s eyeglasses and other items sold for $1.8 million Thursday at an auction that drew outrage from the Indian government, a last-minute reversal from the consignor and a frenzy of bidding won by an Indian conglomerate that said the pacifist leader’s possessions will be coming home.

The lot included Gandhi’s wire-rim eyeglasses, worn leather sandals, a pocket watch, a plate and the brass bowl from which he ate his final meal.

The Indian government had protested the sale, saying the items should be returned to the nation and not sold to the highest bidder. The seller and the government could not work out a deal, and the auction went forward as planned.

But the self-identified owner, California art collector James Otis, told reporters outside the Antiquorum Auctioneers that he no longer wanted to sell the items. Meanwhile, U.S. Justice Department officials served an Indian court injunction on the auction house, blocking it from releasing the items.

Auctioneer Julien Schaerer announced as the sale began that the Gandhi items would be held for two weeks “pending resolution of third party claims.”

Toni Bedi, an executive of the Indian company UB Group, had the winning bid after a furious four minutes in which the offers raced from $10,000 to $1.8 million. Bids came from the floor and by phone and Internet from overseas; none of the other bidders were identified.

Bedi said he was acting on instructions of Dr. Vijay Mallya, CEO of UB Group, whose firms in India include breweries, airlines, chemical, pharmaceutical and fertilizer firms and information and technology companies. He said that the company wants to donate the items to the Indian government, and plans to return them for public display in New Delhi.

The auctioneer’s premium on the sale would boost the total price to about $2 million.

“There are restrictions at the moment pending a court resolution that (the) auction was legal,” Bedi said, referring to the injunction served on the auction house.

Otis, who calls himself a pacifist and advocate of nonviolence in the Gandhi tradition, had said he planned to donate the auction proceeds to that cause. In announcing that he wanted to withdraw the items from sale, he said, it was his “deepest hope” to get them back on Thursday.

Otis said he was embarking on a 23-day fast to “consider my actions,” apparently meaning his earlier decision to auction the items off.

Otis’ attorney, Ravi Batra, said the injunction aimed at barring the sale was legal under treaties between the U.S. and Indian governments.

Antiquorum president Robert Maron would not confirm that Otis was the seller, saying the house never identifies its consignors. “I have not spoken to Mr. Otis today,” he said.

Antiquorum said the items were consigned by a private American collector who obtained them from descendants of the Gandhi family.

The auction house said Gandhi had given the eyeglasses and its leather case to an army colonel who had asked him for inspiration, telling him they were the “eyes” that had given him the vision to free India.

Before the sale, Indian Culture Minister Ambika Soni told reporters in New Delhi that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh instructed her not to let a third party buy the items. She said India would bid for them and “offer whatever it takes to make sure these things come back to Gandhi’s motherland.”

Soni decried the auction as “crass commercialization” of the ascetic leader’s legacy.

In trying to work out a deal with the government earlier, Otis initially demanded that India raise its spending on the poor from 1 percent of its GDP to 5 percent, an estimated $50 billion.

Otis and representatives at India’s Consulate General in New York later drew up a draft agreement in which India would commit to “substantially” raising its funding for poverty over the next decade. A second proposal was for India to fund a world tour of Gandhi-related items to raise awareness of the ideas of pacifism.

However, Indian Junior Foreign Minister Anand Sharma said those terms were not acceptable.

“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,” Sharma said, adding that Gandhi “would not have agreed to conditions.”

Gandhi, who advocated nonviolent civil disobedience to resist British rule in India, died in 1948 after being shot by a Hindu radical.
Associated Press Writer Gavin Rabinowitz in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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