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Gandhi items sell for $1.8 million in controversial auction

Latest update : 2009-03-06

Several memorabilia items that belonged to revered Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi were sold for $1.8 million on Thursday to an Indian businessman who plans to donate them to his homeland.

AFP - An Indian tycoon bought Mahatma Gandhi's iconic round glasses and other belongings Thursday for 1.8 million dollars at an auction that proceeded despite the current owner's call to cancel the sale.

Tony Bedi, bidding on behalf of flamboyant billionaire Vijay Mallya, said the purchase meant that the revered independence leader's glasses, sandals, pocket watch, plate and bowl would now return to India.

"Basically he was bidding for the country," the white turbaned Bedi said after the dramatic auction at Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York.

India had bitterly opposed the auction from the start, insisting that Gandhi's belongings were part of the country's national heritage.

Indian businessmen packed the auction room, joining frenzied bidding to ensure that the memorabilia did not go to another country.

Cheers and clapping broke out when the hammer came down.

But Mallya's patriotic gesture raised complex legal questions and it was unclear when, or even if the items could be sent to India.

Minutes before the auction, the man who says he is the current owner, California-based collector James Otis, had declared he wanted the sale cancelled and the belongings returned to him.

"In the last few hours, I have decided, in the light of the controversy, not to sell Gandhi's personal items," Otis told a scrum of reporters outside the auction house.

"I have formally requested that Antiquorum remove the items from today's auction and return them to me. My deepest hope is that Antiquorum will respect my request."

According to Otis's lawyer, Antiquorum "as of this moment... no longer has the right to sell the items owned by James Otis." He threatened to file a police complaint if the auction went ahead.

Antiquorum would not comment on Otis's move, or even confirm that Otis was the owner.

But the auction house declared a two-week delay in delivering the goods to the auction's highest bidder to give time for legal questions to be addressed.

Bedi acknowledged the delicate situation, saying: "Obviously there are some restrictions at the moment pending resolution whether this auction was legal."

If the sale goes through, though, Mallya "will take the items to India," Bedi said.

Antiquorum chairman Robert Maron told reporters that he had always hoped the collection would be repatriated. "We're very happy to say that the Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia is returning to India," he said. "It's planned it will be on public display."

Whatever Antiquorum's motivations, the auction proved a stunning competition.

The initial estimate had been between 20,000 and 30,000 dollars for the five items. Within seconds, bids topped half a million dollars, climbing rapidly.

Tension and anticipation grew as the bids rose slowly towards the final 1.8 million dollars -- almost all the bids from people present in the room, rather than anonymously by telephone or Internet, as is common at big-ticket auctions.

Bedi said that he was bidding on the instructions of Mallya, who spoke to him by telephone.

Asked if the meagre possessions of a man who rejected material wealth were really worth 1.8 million dollars, Bedi laughed: "I think they're worth six (million dollars)."

Date created : 2009-03-05