Page last updated at 02:32 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

High drama at NY Gandhi auction

By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

An Indian businessman pays nearly 1.27m for Gandhi's personal belongings at auction

I am not sure the New York postman was particularly pleased. The doorman at 595 Madison Avenue certainly was not. Nor the women trying to wander through one of New York's main shopping areas with their designer purchases.

For a time it seemed the chaos of the average Indian street had come to Manhattan. Camera crews pushed and shoved.

Crowds moved in on wealthy businessmen from the subcontinent. And postmen trying to do their job got pushed to one side - literally.

Why? Because after days of rising anger, and therefore interest in the sale of a handful of Mahatma Gandhi's personal possessions, they were finally about to go under the hammer.

Or were they? Not if the seller - of all people - had anything to do with it.

As the crowd of TV cameras moved in on Californian James Otis, a self-titled pacifist and Gandhian, he said he had had enough of the controversy.

National treasures

For days the Indian government had tried to stop the sale. Mr Otis, in the end, buckled, and told reporters that he was withdrawing the items.

Gandhi's leather sandals were among the items auctioned
"I never intended for my actions to cause such controversy. I pray the outcome is positive and one that Gandhi would approve of," he said.

The Indian government had been voicing its anger - as had much of the Indian street - ever since Mr Otis put his Gandhi possessions up for sale.

They included the trademark, round metal spectacles, the leather sandals, a pocket watch, and a metal bowl and plate from which the Indian independence leader ate his last meal before he was assassinated in 1948.

But was the auction really off? People scrambled into the auction hall. No one knew. For a time there was confusion.

Some of India's richest men, and their representatives were unsure as they milled around in the hope of rescuing these national treasures.

They wandered in and out of the rather small auction hall, as the auctioneer - selling some early lots - struggled to be heard over the growing crowd of reporters and camera crews.

Bidding fever

And then, it was announced - lot number 364.

Indian schoolgirl in Amritsar protests against Gandhi sale
The sale had provoked protests in India
"I can open at $20,000. $30,000 I have already," said the auctioneer.

That had been the earlier estimate for the lot. And we had only just started. Within seconds we were up to $100,000, then $200,000. The room fell quieter.

In came telephone bids, internet bids, a bid back to the room, another bid, from someone - unknown to us - in the UK.

"$600,000" the auctioneer said, waving his hammer around.

For Gandhi a man who shunned materialism it would almost certainly have been a bit too much.

Like the price, interest in the sale had risen sharply in recent days as the Indian government dispatched its diplomats to try and stop the auction.

It said the former possessions of such a national icon should be returned to their home country.

What crisis?

As one potential buyer, the Indian-American hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal told me before the sale, it might have been easier had there not been so much media interest.

"They made a big mess. This has been media hyped. The reserve price was $20,000 to $30,000 and now I got a call from them and the reserve price is now $250,000 - $300,000. There was a chance before of bargaining."

Still, he was prepared to pay that, to get the items back to India.

In the end of course the auctioneer's hammer fell a long time after $300,000 had been reached.

"Sold, for $1.8m."

Recession? What recession?

But to whom? At first it was unclear. Then it turned out that Gandhi's sandals might indeed be heading back to India.

Going home

The buyer was one of India's richest men. The chairman of United Breweries, Vijay Mallya had been on the phone all along, talking to his representative Toni Bedi - a sharply dressed man in an immaculate white turban, sitting near the front.

Afterwards, as the scrum pressed forwards towards him, Mr Bedi asked for "a little breathing room".

Were the items really worth $1.8m I asked him?

"Absolutely. I think it's well worth it, and a lot more. If you look at the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and what Mahatma Gandhi was teaching it is well worth it."

Where would they be going now? "Probably go to India." On public display? "I don't know. Dr Mallya would decide."

Several on-lookers wondered what all the fuss was about.

"Who is he," they asked? "He's just bought Gandhi's sandals," a cameraman replied. "Oh." A look of disappointment. Clearly here Gandhi is not the star material Manhattan is used to.

But for Mr Bedi, and his boss we assume, it was a job well done. As the seller indicated he would not after all stand in the way of the sale, assuming the items do go back to India, the buyer tried to get away from the media throng.

"We're off for lunch," he said with a broad grin. Well earned, presumably the majority of Indians are thinking.

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