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Explained: How auction of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal effects have created controversy in recent years

The national leader is known to have given his personal items as gifts or to those in need, and over the last few years, several of these have appeared in auctions.

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 27, 2020 9:30:17 am
The pair was found hanging in the letterbox at the office of East Bristol Auctions. (Source: East Bristol Auctions Instagram page)

A pair of gold-plated circular rimmed glasses worn by Mahatma Gandhi were auctioned in Britain for £260,000 (over Rs 2.5 crore). The pair was found hanging in the letterbox at the office of East Bristol Auctions. “We found them just four weeks ago in our letterbox, left there by a gentleman whose uncle had been given them by Gandhi himself,” East Bristol Auctions wrote on Instagram, adding, “An incredible result for an incredible item! Thanks to all those who bid.”

Part of the “Military, History and Classic Cars” online sale on August 21, describing the lot, the auction house noted: “The spectacles of usual form, with sprung gold plated arms and prescription lenses. Jointed by a gold plated nose bar, the spectacles formed an important and somewhat iconic part of Gandhi’s overall appearance. It was known that he would often give away his old or unwanted pairs to those in need or those who had helped him. A rare and important pair of spectacles.”

The national leader is known to have given his personal items as gifts or to those in need, and over the last few years several of these have appeared in auctions. We look at the recent sales of Gandhi’s personal effects, some record-breaking and others controversial.

*2007: Christie’s pulled out one of the last draft articles written by Mahatma Gandhi from a London auction in July 2007, so that it could be sold directly to the Indian government. Written by Gandhi 19 days before his assassination on January 30, 1948, it was estimated to fetch $24,000 by the auction house. It urged Indians to learn Urdu script. “The limitations of this script in terms of perfection are many. But for elegance and grace, it will equal any script in the world,” wrote Gandhi.

The manuscript had reportedly been in the auction circuit before, and was acquired by Albin Schram, a well-known collector of autographed letters, at an auction in 2002.

*2009: Now a fugitive economic offender, industrialist Vijay Mallya reportedly competed with more than 50 bidders in 2009 to secure Gandhi’s iconic items — including glasses, sandals, pocket watch, plate and a bowl — for $1.8 million at a New York sale by Antiquorum Auctioneers. News of the auction had created a furorE in India, and though the owner of the item James Otis had reportedly agreed to withdraw the items just before the auction, the auctioneers argued against it. Mallya had stated that he intended to donate the collection to the Indian government.

*2012: The year saw several significant sales. In April, a collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s artefacts was sold by Mullock’s auctions, including a pinch of soil and blood-stained blades of grass from the place where he was assassinated in 1948 — which sold for £10,000. A pair of Gandhi’s round-rimmed glasses, meanwhile, came under the hammer for £34,000.

The memorabilia sold also included a charkha, a 10 inch 78 rpm Columbia disc of Gandhi giving his spiritual message signed by him, and original photographs of Gandhi in London in 1931. In addition, were letters in English written by Gandhi to Naduvilpatt Raghavan Poduval in Rangoon, letters by Gandhi in Gujarati and a prayer book in Gujarati.

In July, taking preemptive action, the Indian government reportedly struck a deal with Sotheby’s and purchased several largely unpublished letters, documents and photographs related to Mahatma Gandhi for Rs 6 crore. The items included five decades of correspondence between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish bodybuilder and architect who became a close friend of Gandhi after they met in Johannesburg in 1904.

In December, a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi from Sabarmati jail in 1922 to Rabindranath Tagore’s eldest brother Dwijendranath fetched £49,250, over seven times its pre-sale estimate, at a Sotheby’s auction. The same auction also saw the sale of another 1922 letter written by Gandhi to another friend, sending condolences after hearing from Charlie Andrews of the death of his or her mother. It fetched a bid of £5,625.

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*2013: Mullock’s Auction House sold Gandhi’s Indian teak charkha — used by him in Yerwada Jail in Pune during the Quit India Movement —in the UK for £110,000, nearly double the expected price. It had been gifted by Gandhi to American Free Methodist missionary Revd Floyd A Puffer in 1935. The specialist sale of historical documents and artefacts held in November 2013 also saw the sale of Gandhi’s last will, which fetched £20,000.

*2014: The year saw the coming of rather controversial letters written by Gandhi to his son Harilal, highlighting his concerns over his behaviour. Written in Gujarati in 1935, Mullock’s Auction had hoped to fetch between £50,000 and £60,000 for the letters that remained unsold. In one of the letters, Gandhi writes: “You should know your problem has become more difficult for me than even our national freedom.”

Another letter reads, “Please tell me if you are still interested in alcohol and debauchery. I wish you’d rather die than resort to consuming alcohol.” A controversy also arose on the interpretation of one of the letters, where it was alleged that Gandhi was accusing Harilal of raping his daughter Manu. Tushar Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson) had subsequently written an open letter, stating, “In the letter Bapu confront’s Harilal kaka’s relationship with his dead wife’s sister whom he, Harilalkaka, was contemplating on marrying then. Bapu approved of the marriage since the sister was a child widow. But he wished that both Harilal Kaka and his sister-in-law make an honest confession of their previously committed sins.”

*2017: A previously unknown pencil portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, drawn from life and inscribed by him in 1931, sold for £32,500, about four times its estimated price, at a Sotheby’s auction. The sketch shows Gandhi seated on the floor and writing. It is inscribed by him with the words “Truth is God/MK Gandhi/4.12.’31.” The July auction also saw the sale of a collection of handwritten letters of Gandhi to the family of freedom fighter Sarat Chandra Bose, for £37,500.

*2018: In March, a letter written by Gandhi in 1926, mentioning Jesus Christ, was sold by the Pennsylvania-based Raab Collection for $50,000. It was addressed to Milton Newberry Frantz, a Christian leader in the United States who had written to him about his beliefs. Gandhi wrote: “Dear Friend, I have your letter. I am afraid it is not possible for me to subscribe to the creed you have sent me. The subscriber is made to believe that the highest manifestation of the unseen reality was Jesus Christ. In spite of all my efforts, I have not been able to feel the truth of that statement.”

The same month also saw the sale of a signed vintage photo of Mahatma Gandhi, walking with Madan Mohan Malaviya, after the second session of India’s Round Table Conference in London in September 1931. Signed with a fountain pen, “MK Gandhi,” it sold at a US auction for $41,806.

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