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US collector now wants Gandhi memorabilia back

Citing a "political turn" to events in India, US-based collector James Otis now wants a New York auction house to return a few of Mahatma Gandhi's personal belongings sold for $1.8 million in a controversial auction.

art and culture Updated: Mar 14, 2009 11:40 IST
Arun Kumar

Citing a "political turn" to events in India, US-based collector James Otis now wants a New York auction house to return a few of Mahatma Gandhi's personal belongings sold for $1.8 million in a controversial auction.

"It has become very political in India. The items are being used in a fashion that are not Gandhian at all," the peace activist who had made a futile last minute bid to withdraw the five auctioned items, told IANS over the phone.

Otis, who had earlier reconciled himself to the sale of Mahatma Gandhi's iconic round eye glasses and other personal belongings -pocket watch, sandals, eyeglasses, bowl and plate - to Indian business baron Vijay Mallya, said he was unhappy with the turn of events ahead of elections in India.

As a first step, his lawyer Ravi Batra explained, they were notifying Antiquorum Auctioneers that the sale was null and void as conditions under which he had put the items for auction no longer exist. He would also tell them that he would not ratify the sale.

Without Otis's ratification of the sale they can only turn over the possession to the buyer but not the title of ownership, he said. Under the law of contract, the auctioneer may at best have a claim to expenses if the seller chooses to change his mind.

Batra recalled that he had delivered a letter to Antiquorum before the March 5 auction saying that Otis wanted his stuff back. He had also held a press conference to inform the prospective buyers that the sale was illegal in view of a notice by US Justice Department of a Delhi High Court order staying the auction.

But when Antiquorum went ahead with the auction and the items were sold to Mallya, Otis decided not to contest the sale on the understanding that he would hand them over to the Indian government. But when he saw people jockeying for political benefits in India, he again changed his mind and went on a fast.

Asked if Otis planned to file a case in the New York State Supreme Court in an effort get the items back, Batra said: "We may end up there next week. But we are not there yet." It all depends on how the auction house responds to their notice.

Asked whether he would donate the items to the India, Otis said he had made a proposal to the Indian government to either increase allocation for the poor or sponsor a 78-nation tour of Gandhi's items to promote his principle of non violence.

He said he had received no formal response to the proposal though he had read in the newspapers that it had been rejected. He would continue negotiations with the government, he added.

Asked to comment on the development, a spokesperson of the Indian Consulate General in New York said the matter is sub judice in view of the Delhi High Court order and Justice Department notice. "As far as we are concerned, our role is over."