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Mallya acquires Gandhi's memorabilia for $1.8 million
Arthur J Pais in New York
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March 06, 2009 02:18 IST
Last Updated: March 06, 2009 22:17 IST

Mahatma Gandhi's [Images] prized memorabilia were auctioned for $1.8 million at Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York, an auction house in New York City, on Thursday. The winning bid came from Tony Bedi, who said he was making the bid on behalf of Vijay Mallya [Images], chairman of the United Breweries [Get Quote] group and Kingfisher Airlines.

The items were put up for auction by James Otis, a documentary filmmaker and a self-proclaimed pacifist. They included Gandhi's watch, steel-rimmed eyeglasses, sandals, results of his blood test from Irwin Hospital in New Delhi [Images], a brass bowl and a plate.

The bidding started at $20,000 and, within half a minute, rose to $1 million. An unnamed American antique dealer pushed the bidding up to $1.7 million but gave up when it rose to $1.8 million.

Robert Maron, the president of the auction house, who personally refused to identify both the seller and the buyer, said that because of a legal dispute with the owner, the items would not leave the auction house for two weeks.

It was not clear why the auction went ahead, even after Otis had announced that he was withdrawing the items from the auction, after holding talks with the Indian government.

"We do not recognise Otis," Maron said.


Confusion, drama over auction

The US Justice Department, whose intervention was sought by the Indian government to implement the injunction issued by the Delhi High Court against auction of Gandhi's belongings, had earlier sent a notice to Antiquorum Auctioneers that items be not transferred to the buyer and kept in escrow account until it takes a view on the Indian request. But it had allowed the auction go on.

Just before Gandhi's items went under hammer, the auctioneer explained the position and said it plans to keep the items for two weeks pending the decision of the Justice Department.

Mallya's move came as a total surprise as his name was never mentioned among those who might bid for the items. The bid on the floor was made by his representative Bedi and it was not until the auction was over that the liquor baron's name surfaced to the surprise of everyone present.

One of the bidders was a South African, who was very much interested in the items. Bids were received over the phone and Internet from overseas. None of the bidders were identified.

So much interest was aroused that the auctioneers showed a small clip of Gandhi's everyday activities before bringing his belongings to auction. And the bid increased so fast that it was impossible to keep track.

Originally, Antiquorum Auctioneers had fixed the base price of the items between &20,000 and 30,000 but the media hype and interest shown by the Indian government helped to shoot up the prices and bid itself began around $300,000.

After the auction, Chairman of the auction house Robert Maron expressed satisfaction that the items would go back to India and explained his position as to why the auction could not be stopped.

For hours before the auction started, Indian American leaders had consultations on the strategy at the Indian Consulate here with top Indian diplomats including Consul General Prabhu Dayal.

Talking to reporters, Sant Singh Chatwal, a leading hotelier and community leader who took lead in the negotiations, said it was decided that Indians would not bid against one another as it would have sent up the price.

 It was decided that Mallya would bid for the items, Chatwal said, adding he had been in touch with him throughout.

 Chatwal too had shown interest in bidding for the items and repeatedly asserted that Indian American would not
allow them to be bought by a private collector. 

 During the auction process, Chatwal and Bedi were sitting side by side and were seen consulting often.
Confusion over whether Otis could take the items off the hammer prevailed with contradictory statements being made
by him. He had made a proposal with tough conditions to the Indian government on Wednesday which, analysts said, were impossible for New Delhi accept.

 But even in the unlikely event of India accepting Otis' proposal, in all probability, the auction still could not have been stopped in view of the position taken by the auctioneers and in terms of contract signed by him with them.

 Though Otis' lawyer Ravi Batra said he would not take any action for auctioneers going ahead with the auction
despite his last minute bid to stop it, the Antiquorum officials assert that Otis has no case once he has handed over
the items to them for sale under the contact signed by him.



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