Upcoming Auction Of Gandhi's Belongings Creates Fallout
KORVA COLEMAN, host:
Mohandas K. Gandhi was a man a few possessions. Sixty-one years after his death, a handful of items that formally belonged to the Indian independence hero will be auctioned next month in New York. Bids will open at $20,000 for a Sterling pocket watch, a set of leather sandals and spectacles, and that's along with a brass bowl and plate. The planned sale has sparked widespread criticism in India.
Here with us is Robert Maron, the chairman of Antiquorum Auctioneers, the organizers of the upcoming sale. Welcome, Robert.
Mr. ROBERT MARON (Chairman, Antiquorum Auctioneers): Hi. I'm happy to be here.
COLEMAN: Robert, can you tell me about each of the items that are being auctioned?
Mr. MARON: Well, one of the first things that we have in the lot is a pocket watch that was owned my Mahatma Gandhi. It's a Zenith pocket watch, and it has been said and it's been written that Gandhi had a preoccupation with time. He was never without his watch.
And we've got his sandals. These are sandals that he apparently had given to a British military officer in 1931. They shared a dinner, took photographs together, and at the end of their meeting together, Gandhi took his shoes off and handed them to this officer.
COLEMAN: And the glasses?
Mr. MARON: It's amazing how much interest there's been in the glasses, and I think it's because many people identify Gandhi with those, you know, small, round spectacles that he wore. Gandhi took his glasses off and said, these were the eyes that gave me the vision to free India.
COLEMAN: And what about the bowl and plate?
Mr. MARON: The bowl and plate were gifts that Gandhi had given to Ava, his grandniece, and they were used almost throughout his lifetime. It's interesting to note that Gandhi apparently only had six possessions when he died, and among them we have the watch, the spectacles, the sandals and eating bowl.
COLEMAN: Who's selling this?
Mr. MARON: Well, as an auction house, of course, we could never disclose who the actual seller is, but all of these items had passed through the hands of Gandhi's family.
COLEMAN: Why are they being sold?
Mr. MARON: For one, the consigner of these items is looking for money for charitable endeavors. And two, he wants the world to have a chance to possess these items that have been in his possession for quite a while.
COLEMAN: Well, as you know, Robert - as you clearly know, there was a lot of people who are upset about the idea of the items being put up for sale, being put up for auction. We spoke with Dr. Varsha Das. She's the director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, which also houses some of these items, and she suggests that selling Gandhi's possessions diminishes the worth of his ideas. And I'd like to play you a clip of tape of what she said about this.
(Soundbite of interview)
Dr. VARSHA DAS (Director, National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi): It is very different from putting on auction Marilyn Monroe's dress and things like that, which remains only a part of history and doesn't make them a universal philosophy. So we must understand the difference here.
COLEMAN: How does an auction house respond to that, Robert?
Mr. MORAN: To the best of our knowledge, Gandhi's estate and the government never pursued tracking down and acquiring these items until Antiquorum brought their existence to light.
But more importantly, there's a well-known quote from Gandhi himself, and I'd like to read it. It says: I have seen nothing wrong about these auctions. They set up a healthy rivalry and are innocent methods of evoking the generous impulse in man or woman for a noble cause.
There's a book about Gandhi by Anna Bandio Padyaha(ph), and there's a chapter about him as an auctioneer. And in that chapter it says that Gandhi G decided to auction all the presents, especially things that were ephemeral. It was well known that he auctioned every gift that was ever given to him. So I'd like to think that he would approve of the sale of these items.
COLEMAN: Dr. Das has another clip I'd like to play for you, and she has taken a different view, and I'd like you to hear this clip of tape.
(Soundbite of interview)
Dr. DAS: I am just not able to digest the sort that people will start bidding over his spectacles or watch because Gandhi himself never believed in this kind of commercialism. He was a man of non-possession. He didn't possess even a house. If we pay so much of importance to his things, I think we are doing disservice to him.
COLEMAN: So, I'm trying to reconcile these two different points of view, the one that Dr. Das has just given and then the one you have just mentioned and told us about. How can those two different points of view be reconciled?
Mr. MARON: I understand the argument, I really do, and I'm sympathetic to it. But the process itself of going through the auction house and being auctioned off provides provenance to the item being auctioned. It establishes the history and the significance of the item through the research and publication that we do and creates a value for the item. And I think that this has to be realized.
COLEMAN: Robert, does it trouble you that there has been so much criticism of this sale, that people have criticized you? Are you troubled?
Mr. MARON: I'm sorry that it's become a controversial thing because, you know, Gandhi himself was a pacifist, and I'm troubled that there's been threats, and again, so much controversy, and I would prefer that people see us as the facilitator of giving the public and people all over the world a chance to acquire these items, whether it be for public or private display.
COLEMAN: Robert, you said you've been threatened?
Mr. MARON: There have been threats, yes, but it's not our intent to offend the citizens of India. And I am upset that the result is that so many people in India are upset. And I want to just remind them that Gandhi - I acknowledge him as the father of their country - was an inspiration and leader to people all over the world. And wherever these items wind up, it's going to be a beautiful place in the world. And I hope that everybody can come to terms of that.
COLEMAN: Robert Maron is the chairman of Antiquorum Auctioneers, which is auctioning some personal possessions owned by Mahatma Gandhi. Robert joined us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California. Thank you, Robert.
Mr. MARON: Thank you very much for having me here. I appreciate it.
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