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Chatwal to bid for Gandhiji's memorabilia

Last updated on: March 05, 2009 10:05 IST

As the efforts to stop the auction of Mahatma Gandhi's personal belongings failed, businessman Sant Singh Chatwal asserted that he would make a bid for "sacred pieces of Indian history". Fearing that the controversy over the auction has boosted the prices, the high-profile hotelier said he would like other community leaders to take part in the bidding.   

The auction is slated for Thursday afternoon.

Chatwal was speaking to Rediff India Abroad just as Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York asserted the auction would go on, and its chairman Robert Maron told National Public Radio that he had received threats from India. He did not elaborate on the threats but, he said Gandhi had not opposed the idea of auctioning his few items. 'I am sorry this has become a controversy,' he said. "Gandhi himself was a pacifist.'

The biggest criticism against the auction came from India with Varsha Das of  the National Gandhi Museum. She complained to American reporters in New Delhi that Gandhi's personal items were not like Marilyn Monroe's dress that was auctioned many years ago. Gandhi's items embody Indian philosophy, she asserted. 

The items, owned by James Otis, a documentary film-maker who describes himself a pacifist, also include Gandhiji's steel-rimmed eyeglasses, sandals, results of his blood test from Irwin Hospital in New Delhi and brass bowl and plate. They are being auctioned 60 years after Gandhiji's assassination and about 40 years after they were sold. The watch is drawing a lot of attention, Maron has said, because Gandhi was always preoccupied with time, and he was never seen without his watch. Many people identify Gandhi with the glasses, Maron said. 

The auction is slated for Thursday afternoon. Chatwal said he did not like to make a bid for items because he Gandhi did not believe in such things. But since Antiquorum persisted in holding the auction, he decided to take part in it as a gesture of respect for the Mahatma and retrieve the "national treasures."
"I am a businessman, but I am not going to bid this for myself," the hotelier, who also owns over half a dozen Bombay Palace restaurants in America, Canada and several other countries, said. "I am not even going to bid alone. I want several community leaders involved in this. We want to purchase the items and give it back to India."

"What is at stake here is something priceless, and it is the dignity of India and the memory of the Mahatma that is at stake," he added. He wondered what Gandhiji would have made of the rampart commercialism that involved the few personal items belonging to him.

Julien Schaerer of Antiquorum, a leading watch auctioneering firm, said the auction would go on and a ruling against it by an Indian court will have no effect. 'I believe they don't have jurisdiction in the United States,' Schaerer said. 'It's important to emphasize, they were rightfully acquired and already out of India.'
Otis, who bought items from the Gandhi family or at earlier auctions, told Los Angles Times he chose to sell them now in part because he hoped the publicity the auction would generate would inspire the Obama administration and others to pursue non-violence. The view is not shared by those who wanted the auction stopped. They suspect his motives. Otis has also said he offered to the items to India in exchange for an Indian  government pledge to improve health care. But since the offer was not taken up, he added, he would donate most of the sale proceeds to advocates of nonviolence, chief among them Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The Indian government said the items are 'indivisible part of its heritage' and should be kept at the Navjivan Trust established by Gandhiji. Even if Gandhiji had given some of his personal belongings to those he loved, a press statement by the government said the person concerned had a moral obligation to give those items to the Navjivan Trust founded by the Mahatma. Gandhi had explicitly said that all his belongings including the copyright of his books should belong to the Trust.

Earlier in the week, the Gandhi Foundation of USA expressed its dismay at the proposed auction.

'We fail even to understand how Gandhiji's glasses along with other items are not at Sabarmati Ashram nor with the appropriate authorities in India,' Subash Razdan, chairman of the foundation, said in a statement sent to the Indian government, 'but are allegedly now on the auction block overseas.'  

Chatwal said he was approached by many Indians in India and the consul general of India in New York Prabhu Dayal. "We wanted to stop these items being auctioned but the man who would not consent."

It did not really matter how the items came to be sold to a German art collector and found them in the hands of Otis, Chatwal said. "We want to buy them and give back to India," he asserted.

Gandhi gave the items to his grand-niece, Abha Gandhi, who willed them to her daughter Gita Mehta, according to the auction house.

LA Times quoted an art gallery owner in New Delhi saying that the Gandhi family is to be faulted for not giving the items to the Navjivan Trust. .

'Gandhiji's family didn't safeguard his belongings. It's their fault,' the newspaper quoted  Anil Sood, owner of an art gallery in New Delhi.  He 'sacrificed everything for our country; it's wrong to sell his belongings.'

Maron has also said the Indian government or members of Gandhi family or anyone associated with the Mahatma made no effort over the last four decades, since the items left India to trace them and take them back to India.

He was sympathetic to the Indian sentiments, he added, but he believed the items could belong to anyone across the world. 

Otis, the collector, told reporters that the price offered by the Indian businessmen and the Indian government was so ridiculous that he was embarrassed to mention it. He also said that he had received veiled threats from Indian officials that his name would be given to Interpol and he would be arrested if he visited India.

Chatwal said because of the controversy and the publicity connected to the auction, the reserve price for the items had gone from $25,000 to $250,000.

How much could the items fetch? There were some suggestions that the bidding could go up to $3 million.

"I don't think it will be anywhere near it," Chatwal said. "Looking at it purely in terms of an auction, I would say they are not worth that much of money."  

Arthur J Pais