Indians try to recover Gandhi items up for auction

First the Chinese bronzes, now Gandhi's glasses?

By , Asia editor

Mahatma Gandhi advocated not clinging to material possessions, but Gandhi fans today don't seem to mind fighting over the ones he left behind.

Indians around the world are scrambling to recover the independence hero’s glasses and other effects going on the auction block Thursday in New York.

It’s the second set of Asian relics to go under a Western hammer in recent weeks – and kick up controversy in the process. On Monday, a Chinese national upended the orderly world of high-end auctions by making the winning bid on two antique bronzes whose sale China had protested. He then refused to pay for them, calling it his patriotic duty. See the Monitor’s coverage on that drama here, here, and here.

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India’s government and concerned citizens have taken other tacks to retrieve their national treasures, which include Gandhi’s spectacles, pocket watch, sandals, blood-test results, and a bowl and plate.

On Tuesday, Navjivan, a public trust founded by Gandhi in 1929, won its petition to legally block the auction of Gandhi’s possessions. But the jurisdiction of the high court in Delhi doesn’t extend around the world to New York.

The Indian consul in New York consul tried to buy the glasses et al. from their Los Angeles-based owner. James Otis entertained the idea, but came away underwhelmed: "They made an offer I can't disclose, because I don't want to embarrass them: it's that low," Mr. Otis told AFP.

Fortunately for India, plenty of NRIs (nonresident Indians) are willing to shell out more. “I would like to go even to a quarter of a million dollars,” Indian-American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal told the Press Trust of India. “This is not big money, especially when you want to buy it with among 8-10 friends and give it back to your country.”

Mr. Otis, a documentary maker and self-proclaimed Gandhi fan, promised to donate the items to India if it promised to improve health care. Otherwise, he says, he will donate most of the profit to advocates of nonviolence in honor of Gandhi's work, Bloomberg reports.

Meanwhile he is working on a documentary about the nonviolence advocate, together with Martin Sheen and Gandhi historian Lester Kurtz, according to the Indo-Asian News Service. “We never want Gandhi’s words, and his images and his ideas to go away,” Otis told Bloomberg.

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