Indian Controversy over Art Auction of Gandhi's Artifacts

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.”

Reader Comments

Steven

March 5, 2009 12:03 AM

"bronzes belonging to the Yves Saint Laurent estate were originally stolen". This sentence has serious problem. The bronzes belong to China, not french. It was not stolen, it was robbed of during the opium war by french and brits. Big difference.

Steven

March 5, 2009 12:07 AM

For the Indian items, I don't know how they are now in An American's hands. If the American got them legally, Indians should have no complains, otherwise, the American should return the items to Indians. There are millions of Chinese treaure items are now in the international market, we only complain what were stolen or robbed from us.

neeraj

March 18, 2009 4:05 AM

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The site shows a toll-free number for India, which has not been operational since the controversy broke. The currency conversion is also given in Indian Rupees: Rs 5,800 (US$119.95) a kit for an "introductory offer."

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"Advertisements of this nature are clearly in contravention of the law," attorney Niloufer Bhagwat said.

This has made some people take the question further. Can a website be deemed as an advertisement? Does the government have the right, in this case, to block the website at the national gateways?

Gen-select offers online purchases and even collects inquires from retailers through its site.

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godgift
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auctions-auctions

art auction

May 27, 2009 8:59 AM

In spite of the credit crisis, most customers who go to a fine art auction, aren't affected by the middle class press or imploding housing market, as 6,000 to 7,000 eager bidders appeared at many of the fine art auctions this year.

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