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 struggle as they went on sale at Antiquorum Auctioneers in Manhattan on Thursday.
The tiny auction room at 595 Madison Ave. was thick with finely dressed bidders, a throng of journalists and a lawyer for Otis, who was trying to stop the auction after having second thoughts.
In the end, after days of controversy that roiled 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 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 auction in Paris last month, after which a Chinese collector who said he was the winning bidder, refused to pay for Qing Dynasty bronze sculptures, saying 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.
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 to where it rightly belongs.”
Criticism of the sale had prompted 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.