Saturday, 7 March 2009

A hush as Lot No. 364 came up for sale

From The Hindu

The price continued to rise until Bedi made the winning bid, and applause broke out

New York: A sudden hush descends on the tiny room in the Antiquorum Auctioneers auction house in Manhattan as soon as Lot No. 364 — Mahatma Gandhi’s five prized personal items — come up for sale.

It was shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday (0130 IST Friday) and a slide show of Gandhiji was displayed with a recording of piano music and one of the most contentious auctions that set off an international tempest, whose outcome was awaited with bated breath in India, began.

The bidders included a dozen people in the room, 30 people on the phone, and about two dozen people who submitted written bids. For the first time, the auction house required bidders to submit bank references. Before the auction began, 60 bidders had registered, from Australia, Germany, Austria, India, Canada and the U.S., among other countries.

In comparison, there were only six registered bidders in October for a watch belonging to Albert Einstein, which sold for almost $600,000. The auction room at 595 Madison Avenue was thick with finely dressed bidders, a throng of journalists and a lawyer for the owner of Gandhiji’s memorabilia James Otis, who was trying to stop the auction after having second thoughts.

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 specialises in watches. In the end, after days of controversy that reverberated in India, the lot sold for $1.8 million to Vijay Mallya, Indian liquor and airline magnate.

The controversy over the auction drew comparisons to an incident at Christies 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 protest.

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 Gandhiji 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 Christies,” Antiquorums chairman Robert Maron was quoted by New York Times as having said. At the point when the bidding reached one million dollars, the contest essentially narrowed to Tony Bedi, representing Mr. Mallya, and Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernseys auction house, representing 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 bid, and the room burst into applause.

The proceedings were nearly disrupted about 2:30 p.m. when Mr. Otis’ 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 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.

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

Mr. Mallya’s move came as a total surprise as his name was never mentioned among those who might bid for the items. The bid on the floor was made by Mr. Bedi and it was not until the auction was over that the liquor baron’s name surfaced.

One of the bidders was a South African, who was very much interested in the items. None of the bidders was identified. And the bid increased so fast that it was impossible to keep track.

Within three minutes, the bid had reached $1 million. After that it slowed down a bit but picked pace again. Once it reached $1.8 million, the person auctioning the items waited for quite a while before bringing down the hammer.

Originally, Antiquorum Auctioneers had fixed the base price of the items between $20,000 and $30,000 but the media hype and interest shown by the Indian government helped to shoot up the prices. The bid itself began around $300,000.

For hours before the auction started, Indian American leaders had consultations on the strategy at the Indian Consulate here with top Indian diplomats including Consul General Prabhu Dayal.

Talking to reporters, Sant Singh Chatwal, hotelier and community leader who took the lead in the negotiations, said it was decided that Indians would not bid against one another as it would have sent up the price.

It was decided that Mr. Mallya would bid for the items, Mr. Chatwal said, adding he had been in touch with him throughout.

Mr. Chatwal too had shown interest in bidding for the items and repeatedly asserted that Indian Americans would not allow them to be bought by a private collector.

During the auction process, Mr. Chatwal and Mr. Bedi were sitting side by side and were seen consulting often. — PTI

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