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Despite Outcry, Gandhi Items Sell for $1.8 Million

More than a decade ago, a Los Angeles filmmaker and peace activist named James Otis began collecting items that represented the ascetic lifestyle of Mohandas K. Gandhi. They were the simple belongings of a man who did not care for possessions: his steel-framed spectacles, a pair of sandals, a bowl, a plate and a pocket watch.

Those modest possessions of the leader of the nonviolent struggle for India’s independence touched off an international tempest as they went on sale at Antiquorum Auctioneers in Manhattan on Thursday.

The tiny auction room at 595 Madison Avenue was thick with finely dressed bidders, a throng of journalists and a lawyer for Mr. Otis, who was trying to stop the auction after having second thoughts.

In the end, after days of controversy that reverberated in India, the lot sold for $1.8 million to Vijay Mallya, an Indian liquor and airline magnate who owns the company that makes Kingfisher beer.

For the Indian government — which faces general elections next month — the sale was of questionable legality and threatened to deny the nation part of the cultural legacy of its founder. For Gandhi’s descendants, the sale seemed to contradict his aversion to materialism. Gandhi himself had given away several of the items.

For Mr. Otis, the sale was to be a means to promote pacifist causes, although the uproar later proved to be upsetting.

Antiquorum Auctioneers insisted that the sale would go on regardless. The dispute drew comparisons to an incident at Christie’s in Paris last month in which a Chinese collector said he was the winning bidder for Qing Dynasty bronze sculptures but refused to pay, saying he was sabotaging the auction because the works had been looted in the 19th century.

While the Gandhi items were believed to have been legitimately obtained, both sales pitted auction houses against governments that could ultimately do little more than complain.

Mr. Mallya pledged through a representative to return the items to India for public display. But Prabhu Dayal, India’s consul general in New York, said, “There is still a legal matter to be resolved," because a court in New Delhi had issued an injunction to block the sale.

Nonetheless, Tushar Gandhi, 49, a great-grandson of Gandhi who heads the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, said in a phone interview from Mumbai after the sale, “I am very happy now. Now the things will come back to India,” where, he said, they rightly belonged.

Criticism of the sale had prompted Mr. Otis — who also owns a vast Dr. Seuss collection — to make an unusual offer on Wednesday. He said that he would donate the items to India if the government agreed to sharply increase spending on the poor or include the items in an exhibition that would travel the world.

In New Delhi on Thursday, Anand Sharma, a junior foreign minister, said that those terms would violate India’s sovereignty and that Gandhi himself would have rejected them. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directed his representatives in the United States to do everything possible to secure the items. The culture and tourism minister, Ambika Soni, even vowed to “enter the auction if required as a last resort,” an option that was rejected.

On Thursday morning, the bidders — a mix of Indian-born business executives and die-hard timepiece collectors — began filling a fifth-floor room of the auction house, which specializes in watches.

The five objects took up half of a glass display case, atop a yellowed copy of the Jan. 30, 1948, issue of an Ohio newspaper, The Piqua Daily Call, with the headline: “Gandhi Shot and Killed Today.” Himadri Roy, 72, an engineer and real estate investor who had flown in from Montreal, had tears in his eyes as he examined the case and recalled meeting Gandhi as a 10-year-old in India.

For the first time, the auction house required bidders to submit bank references. “We are concerned about what happened at Christie’s,” said Antiquorum’s chairman, Robert Maron. That was not a problem for some would-be bidders, like Sant Singh Chatwal, who owns hotels and restaurants.

The proceedings were nearly disrupted about 2:30 p.m. when Mr. Otis’s lawyer, Ravi Batra, entered the auction house to attempt to stop the sale. Julien Schaerer, an official of the auction house, which would not disclose its commission, said that Mr. Otis had entered a “legally binding agreement” to sell the items.

Employees escorted Mr. Batra from the building. He later said that Mr. Otis did not plan to challenge the sale if Mr. Mallya agreed to turn the items over to the Indian government, although it was not immediately clear whether he would do so.

As soon as Lot 364, came up for sale just after 3 p.m., a hush settled across the room and a slide show of Gandhi appeared, with a recording of light piano music. There were about 60 bidders in all, including a dozen in the room. Bidding was to begin in $10,000 increments, but in seconds the bids, fueled by Internet and phone offers, rose to $200,000 and then jumped by $50,000 or $100,000. Within two minutes, the bid had reached $1 million.

At that point, the contest essentially narrowed to Tony Bedi, representing Mr. Mallya, and Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s auction house, representing a former Indian cricketer, Dilip Doshi, who was said to be interested in donating the items to the Indian government. The price continued to rise until Mr. Bedi made the winning $1.8 million bid, and the room burst into applause. “He is bringing the heritage of the items back to India,” Mr. Bedi said of Mr. Mallya.

Mr. Maron, of the auction house, said he was delighted that the items would return to India for public viewing. “We had hoped that would be the result,” he said.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi and Jennifer 8. Lee and Joel Stonington from New Yor

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