Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gandhiji's Things Bought, Sold, Bought, Home

My watches, which sadly go unworn.

This morning, I learned about a marvelous thing called the six-word memoir.

Here’s one for Mohandas K. Gandhi, a/k/a Mahatma Gandhi, a/k/a Gandhiji (this last is an affectionate honorific, akin to the Japanese “san”):
Gave everything so India could live.

Here’s how James Otis’ might read:
Sold Gandhi's things for noble reasons?

And Vijay Mallya’s:
Money from beer to buy history.

And that of Antiquorum Auctioneers:
We're here to sell nice watches.

Allow me to expand those out for you (with the exception of Gandhiji, whose role in this story is self-evident.)

James Otis, also called Richard Otis, is a documentarian/art collector/peace activist who was once married to the daughter of the man who created the Muppets. He acquired various items that once belonged to Gandhi, and put them up for auction in order to promote nonviolence.
An uproar ensued. Schoolchildren, politicians and pretty much everyone in India clamored for the return of the items to India. Otis said he’d stop the sale if the Indian government pledged 5% of its budget to fight poverty. The government refused, and Mr. Otis asked the auction house to stop the sale, but they refused, citing potential liability due to too many preregistered buyers as well as the auction contract signed by Mr. Otis.

Following the sale, Mr. Otis pledged the proceeds to charity, and announced plans to complete a 23-day fast in honor of Gandhi (that’s the longest the latter went without food). He has also been quoted as saying that he wished the items had fetched a higher price. One wonders whether other items in his collection might someday achieve that mark (he owns items that once belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and the Dalai Lama).

Now, Mr. Mallya, who inherited an empire of various businesses at 27, owns Kingfisher Beer and Kingfisher Airlines, and is a member of Parliament. He was not publicly known as a bidder prior to the auction, but has a history of buying Indian artifacts in order to return them to India (he did this in 2004, with a significant sword). He paid $1.8 million for the four items and has vowed to send them home to Hindustan (a/k/a India).

Finally, the auction house, Antiquorum Auctioneers, whose website proclaims them to be “the world’s premier watch auctioneers.” On February 6, 2009, they issued a press release regarding a “special spring watch auction” of “over 400 important timepieces” including “a watch that belonged to President John F. Kennedy and later Aristotle Onassis; a pocket watch that belonged to Mahatma Gandhi; and a superb selection of Patek Philippe wristwatches …” Prior to the sale, the auction house announced that it had agreed with the U.S. department of Justice to delay the finalization of the sale in order to resolve third-party claims.

About that third party: It’s the Navjivan Institution, which is the only legal heir to Ghandhi’s property. They stepped forward to protest the sale, saying they want to ensure that the artifacts are exhibited such that they can be enjoyed by everyone in India. They took similar steps in 2006, when Gandhi’s letters were up for auction in London. In that case, the government intervened and the letters were returned to the Institution’s custody.

These machinations are all very fascinating, but still, I feel that the real story is how these iconic items left the country in the first place. They are: a pocket watch (a gift from Indira Gandhi, no relation, before she became Prime Minister of India); glasses (given by Gandhi to an army colonel with the comment that they were the “eyes” that had given him the vision to free India); sandals (made by Gandhi and given by him to a British Army officer in appreciation for the latter taking photographs of the former during a trip to London to negotiate for India’s independence); and the plate and bowl (given by Gandhi to one of his great-nieces) from which he may or may not have eaten his last meal.
I’ll post an update if I find out how these pieces of history found their way from my husband's country to mine.


  1. Heidi - Can't imagine the time involved to share such interesting facts. You're obviously smitten with India. I've learned a LOT! Especially enjoyed the one on wedding jewelry. It's always delightful to learn about other cultures. Love, A. Gerre

  2. Great post! I really loved this one. Good 6-word memoirs, too!


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