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'I will donate Gandhi assets for free if..'

Last updated on: March 03, 2009 13:14 IST

A lifelong pacifist, James Otis,45, of Los Angeles California, who is the owner of Mahatma Gandhi's iconic steel-rimmed glasses, pocket-watch, sandals, and other assets and documents, which he has put on the auction block in New York on March 4, says no one from the Government of India has contacted him or the auction house despite his going public and expressing his willingness to negotiate with New Delhi or its proxies and even providing an e-mail address ( where he can be contacted

In an interview from California, Otis told, "No one from the Government of India has contacted me nor have they contacted the auction house (Antiquorum Auctioneers), and I have been going on television stations and media and even giving my e-mail address in hopes of a communication, but is has just not happened."

India has said it wants to stop the auction of these personal possessions of Gandhiji and Minister of Culture Ambika Soni had told an agency that "Whatever can be done is being done to ensure that articles are not auctioned by involving all concerned stakeholders".

The agency also said a Ministry official said the government had approached various owners of Gandhi's belongings to ask them to "offer the items to the government on the basis of honor and due acknowledgment".

Otis said, he was aware that "the Indian government has said that they've been trying to stop the auction, which I think is a lot harder than trying to win the auction or negotiate with me".

He disclosed that on Friday, February 27, "The US Department of Homeland Security had sent three men to the auction house to try to demand information on the items and the owner, and when that organization gets involved, I'm curious why they are there? Are they there on behalf of (President Barack) Obama, who's got a picture of Gandhi in his office, or are they there on behalf of the Indian government in trying to stop the auction or win the auction. So it's a little unclear, why they went there."

Otis said the auction house refused the demands of the Homeland Security officials, but added with a chuckle that, "I am deeply hoping it's Obama -- that he's going to get these belongings and put them in his office and then decide that from now on, he will not resolve any of these international contracts with violence and thereby be a great supporters and great vision for all of us to follow."

Asked why an avid collector of Gandhi memorabilia and also an ardent Gandhi disciple like him was trying to sell these items, Otis explained that for the past decade, 'I've been working with a Professor at George Mason University (in Fairfax, Virginia) Lester Kurtz, one of the foremost scholars on Gandhi in the world on three projects. A film called Peaceful Warriors -- A History of Nonviolence, which is initially why I bought these items."

He said along with Kurtz he has also "been working on a school curriculum for American high school students to teach them about Gandhi and Gandhian non-violence strategies and theory and the items were used for museum exhibitions in the United States.

"But, the reason I am selling them now, is one, our initial intent was to do this full-time and to get them into multiple museums and we were only able to get them into one large museum in Los Angeles and a few universities."

"So, my hope in selling them now was if someone could come along and do much more good with them than they've ever done with me. They've been in my private collection for the past many years."

Otis said, "My hope was never to make any money on these items. That was never the intent of purchasing them, nor is it the intent now to make money selling them. The reason I am selling them is Gandhi, as you may know, auctioned off items himself. He received gifts from heads of state and others, and he would auction these items off and felt and supported the good nature and competitive bidding in people for good works if the money went to good causes."

"And, so the money will be going to non-violence organizations like The Fellowship of Reconciliation, which is the largest US peace organization in the world -- a Quaker organization -- that practises nonviolence in the United States and in Third World countries."

Otis said, "I am sort of following Gandhi's lead in the idea that auctions bring about good people who have great ideas. So, I am sort of following that lead in that the auction is promoting Gandhi's views and his values and is creating discussion and debate and that's what part of the hope of this was to do."

But, he said, "I have been telling through many different means to the Indian government that if they would like to negotiate with me -- non-financially -- and if they would agree to increase the GDP of India that is now going to the poor -- their national healthcare is now only at 1 percent -- I will donate these belongings to them for free."

He reiterated that "I have said, if for example, they don't want to go to the auction and try to win the items, if they would like to settle in a non-financial way, then I would gladly come up with a scenario, where they could increase the GDP, from 1 percent to 5 percent, which would help India's poor, which is one of Gandhi's causes when he was alive, that would make everyone very pleased."

Otis said if the government would increase the GDP thus, then "they could do whatever they want with it (the items of Gandhi) and I will fly these items over tomorrow if they agreed to 5 percent from 1 percent."

When informed that one of the options the Indian government was hoping was that an Indian American or Indian Americans could buy it and donate it to the Indian government to be kept in a museum, Otis said, "That would be fantastic."

Asked if he were pained by the accusations being hurled at him for putting Gandhi's personal belongings on the auction block, Otis said, "I am sorry again that there's been anger toward me because of what I've chosen to do with the items. But, again, I am only following Gandhi's own path of when he had items, he sold them. Again, if I was selling the items for $4 million privately, that's a different story. I am not trying to do that."

"I am trying to raise a lot of money for either non-violence causes or trying to get a great deal of support for the poorest of India's poor, which of course, now with Slumdog Millionaire we've seen what India's slums look like that exist today and those people need incredible amounts of help and this auction could do it."

Otis said that the bidding was starting from $20,000 to $30,000 and not that this was the estimated prices the items were expected to fetch. "There is a much, much higher reserve price and there is 10 times that and that's what they believe they will go for."

He said Albert Einstein's watch was sold for $650,000 last year, and Abraham Lincoln's watch had sold a few years earlier for $860,000.

"So, Gandhi being, I think one of the greatest men that ever lived, could easily fetch one, two, three, four times what those watches fetched."

"But, I believe these belongings are priceless. If I was a billionaire I would spend $100 million on them. Gandhi didn't believe in possessions and so it's more important that we focus his goods works and wishes rather than the money that will be achieved from this. However, good organizations will be benefiting," he said.

Otis also in the interview reminisced about his visit to India a few years ago and the time he spent in Ashram Arunchala in Thiruvannamalai, "which is right by the mountains that they though was Shiva, and I was there for the full moon with hundreds of thousands of Indians and we marched around the mountain all night long. It was the most incredible experience I've seen."

Otis, who is also a film maker, mostly documentaries, besides being a collector, wrote and directed Secrets of the CIA (1998) for the Turner Broadcasting Corporation, which was shown on CNN Perspectives in 60 countries. He also directed and produced The Power of Peace, Peace in Our Schools for the Wisdom Channel (2000) with Uma Thurman hosting. Recently, he narrated and produced three more one hour shows for the Wisdom Channel, entitled, The Power of Peace: Personal, Family and Global Peace hosted by Harry Belafonte.

He's had a track record of experience of promoting nonviolence and worked for UNESCO in Paris in 1992 and as a staff journalist for the Vietnam Veterans of America in Washington, DC in 1986. He has also worked as a suicide hotline counselor developing extensive outreach programs in schools and prisons.

Though the 1980s, he worked for Amnesty International in DC and Austin, Texas, and traveled extensively in  Central America, Europe and Africa, working with refugees fleeing war-torn countries.

Otis has been published in the New York Times magazine and is currently writing his first book, My Experiments with Silence based on 9 years or not talking on Sundays.

He told that "While I was looking in Gandhi's journals, I noticed that he didn't speak on Sundays. So, I took that idea from him and I practised silence for nine years on Sunday and I wrote an article in the New York Times about how very wonderful it was."

Otis was also recently featured in an A & E Special on his Dr Seuss original art collection, which is one of the largest in the world and a portion is being exhibited at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

And, the four-hour television documentary he is currently working on with Professor Kurtz titled Peaceful Warriors, is narrated by actor Martin Sheen. It is a four-tiered project that includes a documentary film, K-12 educational curriculum, Internet component, and a travelling exhibition.

Aziz Haniffa in Wasington, DC