Posted by: Frederik Balfour on March 4, 2009
Recently Eye on Asia has followed the controversy over two Ming dynasty bronzes that were put up for auction as part of the sale of the Yves Saint Laurent art collection by Christie’s in Paris last week. Now it looks as India is having problems of its own with an art auction house. On March 5, New York auctioneer Antiquorium will offer for sale several personal items once belonging to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. These include a pocket watch, a pair of leather sandals, a pair of eye glasses, and his bowl and plate [after all, Gandhi had precious few personal possessions]. For a look at these humble items, click here for the catalogue. According to this Bloomberg story, the Indian Consulate tried to buy the items to ensure they would be returned home, but the price was too low for the seller, and the auction of the items will go ahead as planned.
There is, of course, a fundamental different between the Chinese and Indian cases. The bronzes belonging to the Yves Saint Laurent estate were originally stolen from China’s Summer Palace in Beijing, while the provenance of Gandhi’s belongings is untarnished: they were gifts made by Gandhi to relatives and other acquaintances. According to the Antiquorium catalogue, the sandals were given to a British officer in Aden in 1931.
Perhaps there is no better summary of the issues than what Gandhi himself said about how the means and the end are inseparable, as espoused in the theory of satyagraha. This excerpt printed in the catalogue is particularly apposite: “If I want to deprive you of your watch, I will certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want I gift, I shall have to plead for it; and according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.”
China had tried, unsuccessfully, to put a stop to their sale at a Christie’s auction in Paris last week, on the grounds that they were stolen from the Beijing Summer Palace 150 years ago and should be returned. Pierre Berge, the seller, enraged China further by offering to give the works back if Beijing improved its treatment of the Tibetans. When the auction finally went ahead he winning bid of $40 million came from an unidentifiedBeijing-based antique dealer, and it appeared the works would be repatriated. But on March 2, in a surprise twist, the dealer and self-styled patriot named Cai Mingchao, had stiffed Christie’s and had only bid for the bronzes in order to sabotage the sale. But two wrongs do not make a right. His refusal to pay for goods he had bought did nothing to help get the looted bronzes back on mainland soil. Gawker calls this ambush “guerrila artistic political protest.”