Mahatma Gandhi’s iconic round spectacles are to be sold at auction in New York by Antiquorum Auctioneers on March 4th and 5th. Gandhi’s sandals and pocket watch as well as a bowl and plate are also up for sale. It is expected that his glasses will fetch £30,000, although the winning bid may well be higher. All the possessions are owned by an unnamed collector and have letters of authenticity.
Gandhi gave his spectacles to the Indian army Colonel H A Shiri Diwan Nawabin in the 1930s following his request for Gandhi’s advice, allegedly saying that they ‘gave [him] the vision to free India’. According to the auctioneers, the glasses were passed down through the colonel’s family and have a letter of provenance from his grandson. Gandhi is believed to have given his sandals to a British army officer in 1931 before talks in London about Indian self-rule to thank the officer for taking some photos of him. His Zenith pocket watch made in about 1910, his bowl and plate were all gifts to Gandhi’s grand-niece Abha Gandhi, who was his assistant for six years and in whose arms he died after he was shot.
Particular attention has been drawn to the auction because Gandhi had so few possessions. In an interview for The Telegraph Michelle Halpern from Antiquorum Auctioneers explained:
‘He didn't have much, so anything of his that comes up for sale is worth that
much more […] He's a hero not just in India but across the world for his
peaceful methods and the changes he made [...] The items were put together by a
collector who is now selling them and there has already been a great deal of
interest. I am sure the items will sell for more than the estimate.’
In October, the auction house, which specialises in timepieces, notably sold Albert Einstein’s Longines wristwatch for almost £352,000, twenty times the expected price.
In India, however, the sale has sparked considerable controversy. Some of Gandhi’s followers have requested that the buyer put the objects in the public domain and a group of MP’s have called for their return to India. One minister claimed Gandhi’s possessions were part of India’s heritage and suggested that the government should enter the auction and buy the items.
Ramachandra Rahi, secretary of the Gandhi Memorial Foundation in Delhi, told the Indo-Asian News Service:
‘All of Gandhi's things should be ideally placed in a museum or place where the
public has access to it. It should be available to future generations to see and
draw inspiration from.’
Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer told the Times of India:
‘It would be a pity if these items were to pass into private hands abroad and
leave India bereft of an important part of his legacy.’
The public auction of Gandhi’s few possessions appears ironically out of line with his modest lifestyle and almost disrespectful of his beliefs and ascetic philosophy. It is unlikely that Gandhi would have approved of the sale. There is still hope, however, that the objects may be withdrawn from sale. In 2007, Indian authorities notably successfully persuaded auctioneers to cancel the sale of a manuscript of an article written by Gandhi.
For more information on Gandhi’s legacy, read our article Makers of the Twentieth Century: M. K. Gandhi
For more information on Gandhi and Nehru’s visions of India at the time of independence, read our article Gandhi and Nehru - Frustrated Visionaries?