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Gandhi Items Sold, But Deal On Hold

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Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi's personal effects sold for $1.2 million at a New York City auction Thursday. The seller, however, withdrew the items and the auctioneer has said it will wait two weeks before finalizing the sale. India's government had opposed the auction.


Five items belonging to India's great spiritual and political leader, Mohandas Gandhi, were auctioned together this afternoon in New York. His glasses, sandals, watch, bowl and plate fetched $1.8 million. But the auction did not go smoothly. In the run-up to the sale, the Indian government threatened legal action. Owner James Otis actually offered to stop the auction and give the items to India, but he had conditions.

Otis wanted the Indian government to increase the amount it spent on health care for its citizens and to send Gandhi's things on a world tour. Officials for the Indian government rejected those demands and said they would bid on the items, which they considered a part of their national heritage.

Joining us just back from the auction is NPR's Margot Adler. Margot, this turned into a very contentious sale. Tell us what happened.

MARGOT ADLER: Oh, it was a wild ride. Picture the scene. Now, this is lot 364, just one lot, all the rest of the items on a two-day auction are heirloom watches. Reporters are packed in. The auction people are screaming at people. About a half an hour before the Gandhi items come up, James Otis, the owner, suddenly says he wants to withdraw the items, continue to negotiate with the Indian government.

The auction house refuses, says it's going ahead. When lot 364 comes up, the auction house, which is Antiquorum USA, says that because of all the legal issues, remember the Indian government has a suit, the owner isn't happy, the items will be held for two weeks while the legal issues are resolved.

Then the bidding begins. The Indian government is clearly on the phone. There are many bidders, but the winning bid was by Tony Bedi representing Vijay Mallya, a businessman involved with Kingfisher Airlines, UB Group in India. And Bedi said that Mallya would give the items to the Indian government.

BLOCK: So that should make the Indian government happy. Does it mean that the legal issues are over now?

ADLER: Well, it's not totally clear. There is this suit in the Delhi court. Otis is not supposedly completely happy, but the Indian government is getting exactly what it wants. And so one would bet that this suit is going to be dropped.

BLOCK: And the items are going back to India. What can you tell us about this man, James Otis, who had these items and how he got them?

ADLER: Well, he's a fascinating character. He is a documentary filmmaker who's made several movies with Harry Belafonte. He is a collector who has the largest, apparently, collection of Dr. Seuss illustrations. He's a pacifist. He's been arrested 12 times in nonviolent activism. And what I would say, if I was going to - this is sort of a hard thing to say, but I would say he combines the brashness, creativity and arrogance of a certain kind of American entitlement.

I mean, it's sort of crazy to say to the Indian government you have 24 hours to agree to change the amount you're going to give for health care for your people? And India, of course, said infringement of sovereignty.

BLOCK: And how did he get these things in the first place?

ADLER: Well, he went to auctions and auctions and, you know, he was collecting all kinds of nonviolent stuff. He has stuff from Vaclav Havel. He has stuff -one of the things belonged to a colonel, was the sandals were apparently given to a colonel. I don't exactly know how they came up for auction, but he got them over the years.

BLOCK: Well, how does he feel about the ultimate result today?

ADLER: Well, clearly he has $1.8 million minus the taxes to give to all the nonviolent charities and causes that he believes in, but Jonathan Friedman, a spokesman for Otis, says he's overwhelmed, he's lying low. He was not at the auction, but in the end, you know, everybody has to admit it, it's a good outcome for everyone, including him.

BLOCK: And do we know what India plans to do with Gandhi's glasses, and plate, and bowl, and watch and sandals?

ADLER: Apparently they will put them on display. They clearly see this as the return of their heritage, of their national treasure and they are clearly extremely happy to have all of these items back.

BLOCK: Okay, Margot, thanks.

ADLER: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Margot Adler speaking with us from New York where a handful of items owned by Mohandas Gandhi sold at auction for $1.8 million dollars this afternoon.

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