LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
A sterling silver pocket watch, wire rim spectacles, a pair of sandals and a brass bowl and plate - five items that once belonged to Mohandas K. Gandhi. They're scheduled to be auctioned in New York this afternoon, and they're at the center of a dispute between the Indian government, the auction house and a seller who says he wants more than money. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGO ADLER: The items rest in a small glass case at the Antiquorum auction house. They seem a little out of place surrounded by cases of air loom watches. Julian Schaerer is the watch director and auctioneer. While the suggested price in the catalog for the Gandhi items is 20 to $30,000, there's already talk of seven figures.
Mr. JULIAN SCHAERER (Watch Director, Auctioneer, Antiquorum Auction House): All these objects are priceless, and they'll go for as much as somebody thinks these objects are worth.
ADLER: No one will talk politics, the fact that the government of India and various Indian cultural institutions are up in arms over the auction, that there is a legal suit. A woman walks in, her name is Natalie Comfort(ph). And what has brought her here?
Ms. NATALIE COMFORT: These exact objects of Gandhi's. To me, it's history and it's wonderful.
ADLER: And what do you hope happens with these objects?
Ms. COMFORT: That eventually, they find their way right back to India.
ADLER: The government of India hopes that, too, and more than hopes. A court in New Delhi has issued an injunction against the auction. I go to the Consulate of India in New York and meet with a consul general, Prabhu Dayal. He doesn't want to say anything on tape, but when the phone rings, I quickly note that he's talking to the auction house, telling them to stop the auction. The auction house is saying India has no jurisdiction. Dayal will only say this much for the record.
Mr. PRABHU DAYAL (Consulate of India in New York): The high court of Delhi has passed an order. It has directed that Antiquorum Auctioneers should be restrained from auctioning the articles which had belonged to Mohandas Gandhi.
ADLER: The suit was brought by the Navajivan Trust started by Gandhi in 1929 that claims all his possessions. Meanwhile, the owner of the items is 45 year-old James Otis, a documentary filmmaker, a collector and a fan of Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of India. Otis says he's a deep believer in nonviolence and he gathered these items over the years. He's been talking to the consulate, too, trying to make a deal. He met with Dayal on Tuesday.
Mr. JAMES OTIS (Documentary Filmmaker): It was a little scary 'cause they handed me some sort of legal paper showing that I could go to jail in India for this or that my name could be given to Interpol. And when they said that, I told them when you threaten arrest to a nonviolent activist, that's sort of a badge.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OTIS: I've been arrested two dozen times, and it's an honor to spend time in jail to fight an injustice.
ADLER: So he proposed two things. He would remove the items from sale if the Indian government would create a traveling exhibit that would go around the world as part of a huge dialog on nonviolence.
Mr. OTIS: So that was one of the possibilities. And they were sort of opened to that.
ADLER: The other was increasing the amount India spends on health care, from one to three or four percent of their GDP. After all, said Otis, they increased their military budget more than 20 percent after the Mumbai attacks. Are you serious? I said. You expect the government to agree to this in 24 hours?
Mr. OTIS: You're right. It's quite a lot to ask. However, we're confident that, again, if the Indian government is serious, they can at least write us something that will be enough for me to go back to the auction house, discuss this with them, and then - and pull these items.
ADLER: The auction is set for around 3:30 Eastern Time today. Will it happen? I asked Otis.
Mr. OTIS: I have faith that Gandhi is sort of in charge of all this.
ADLER: A statement that may be a little too mystical for governments or the auction house involved.
Margo Adler, NPR News, New York.
WERTHEIMER: Today, the Indian government responded to James Otis's proposal. It rejected the deal and vowed to buy Gandhi's possessions. India's culture minister said his country would bid for the items and, quote, "offer whatever it takes." You're listing to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.