An outraged India is taking action to prevent more of Mahatma Gandhi’s belongings being auctioned off abroad after a handful of meager possessions sold for $1.8 million to an Indian liquor and airline magnate.
The precious items – steel-framed spectacles, a pair of sandals, a bowl, a plate and a pocket watch – went on the block at Antiquorum Auctioneers in Manhattan on Thursday, despite a public outcry. The auction had led to uproar in India, with one minister calling it “gross commercialization”.
That outcry prompted the seller, L.A. filmmaker and collector James Otis, to reconsider and try to ditch the auction, but the lot went under the hammer as planned. That’s because the government rejected Otis’s last minute offer to donate the items to India if leaders would greatly increase spending on the poor or include the items in a traveling worldwide exhibit.
Anand Sharma, a junior foreign minister, argued the terms regarding the reallocation of money would violate India’s sovereignty and that Gandhi himself would have rejected those terms. Really?
The sandals and glasses of a beloved man who went on hunger strikes as a non-violent protest of abhorrent political policies and poverty were showcased in dramatic Hollywood fashion, striking a raw nerve as much of the world reels from the harsh realities exposed in Slumdog Millionaire.
According to a report in the New York Times, as soon as Lot 364 came up there was a hush in the room. A slide show of Gandhi played on the screen along with a recording of light piano music. Some 60 people vied for bids, as well as Internet and phone offers, quickly pushing the $10,000 increments to the million dollar mark within minutes.
Now that pocket watch is in the hands of flamboyant tycoon Vijay Mallya – listed by Forbes in 2006 as the 746st richest person in the world. He owns the company that makes Kingfisher beer and Bagpiper whiskey, has a fleet of vintage cars and a stud farm with 200 horses.
People who know him in the Bay Area where he keeps one of his many palatial residences say he lives an extremely opulent life, incorporating gold into his walls and flooring and throwing birthday parties for his children on his yacht.
Mallya has promised to return the items to India for public display, and according to BBC sources, India’s culture ministry worked closely with the businessman to obtain the items to insure they would indeed come home.
Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar, said on Indian television: “I am delighted, absolutely delighted that Vijay Mallya bought these things and they will now come back to India.” He also said the sandals were made by his great-grandfather with his own hands.
But the Press Trust of India reports that the Indian government is still angry over its powerlessness to prevent the auction. It will seek to obtain injunctions in European and U.S. courts to block any future auctions of Gandhi’s possessions.
The government rightly argued the sale in insulted the memory of a man who rejected material wealth. Putting his meager belongings on the auction block obviously ran counter to Gandhi’s message.
“We want to preempt any auction of Gandhi items in the future by making it known that selling or buying these heritage articles is illegal,” a senior official was quoted as saying. “No one has the right to do this.”
The report said the culture ministry wanted to create a database of Gandhi memorabilia in India and abroad to make them easier to track.
Meantime, we are all left wondering why so much fuss has been made about the man’s material goods rather than his message – which is needed now more than ever.
How much is it worth now that we are embroiled in global violence and watching our economies stoop to new levels because of unparalleled corporate greed? Let’s see who buys the message!
Images: Ulti Seit for the New York Times