Auctioning Mahatma Gandhi’s Memorabilia: A Discussion With A Museum Professional

Ramalakshmi is a trained museum professional and has worked in museums in the U.S., including the Smithsonian Institution. She is also a guest faculty in the National Museum Institute, New Delhi. But her career is that of a journalist and she covers India for The Washington Post. Her recent article on the controversy appeared in the Times of India’s edit page. In this article, she joined issue with those who argued that Mahatma Gandhi’s message is more important than his objects. Here, she answers some of my questions on the controversy regarding the auction of Mahatma Gandhi’s memorabilia.

Q: The recently-held auction of Gandhi’s memorabilia at N.Y. evoked derision because it was commercialised, and they carried a huge price. I’d agree with you that they have intrinsic value as museum objects. But are not the auction and the importance of treating them as museum objects contradictory to each other? Should there be not a ban on auctioning such objects which are of importance to a museum? What if a collector does not donate to a museum, but keeps them for himself, to be resold for a higher price at a later date. What incentive a collector has to part them with a museum? Do Museums take part in auctions? Can they afford it?

ANS: Yes, on the face of it, it does appear as if the auction of Gandhiji’s objects and their museum display are mutually exclusive. But if the auction had not taken place, how would the world have known that these objects exist? It would have been tucked away in James Otis’ attic or a vault. There cannot be a ban on auctioning historical objects. How can there be one, these have huge commercial value. If I have an original painting of Tagore in my home, why would I not want to sell it at an auction and make money? After all, that is what investment in art is all about. If Vijay Mallaya had not announced his intention to gift the items to the Indian government, there is nothing to prevent him from keeping them in his private collection.

The collector has no incentive to donate them to a museum but a sense of social responsibility that these objects should be available for posterity and for public viewing. Rich philanthropists and art patrons usually buy them and donate them to museums. Many private collectors often open up for public viewing too. Sometimes they lend their collections to the museum for temporary exhibitions, and after viewing the artifacts go right back to the collectors. A few museums do take part in auctions. In Malaysia, the Islamic Arts museum bought at auctions. In India, however, I hear there is a court ruling that forbids museums from entering auctions. But private art galleries do.

Q: According to Mahatma Gandhi’s Will, whatever that belonged to him would be the property of Navjivan Trust. Therefore, should not law treat these memorabilia as stolen property? Had Gandhi gifted these to someone, will there be proof for it?

Mahatma Gandhi’s Will says:
I do not believe that I have any property. Nevertheless, anything which by social convention or in law is considered mine; anything movable or immovable; books, articles etc. that I have written and may write hereafter, whether printed or not printed and all their copyright; I endow as my heirs the Navajivan Institution, whom I hereby declare as my heirs, and the Declaration of Trust for the establishment of which I alone with Mohanlal Maganlal Bhatta got registered as a deed of trust on 26-11-1929 and of which Shri Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel, Shri Mahadev Haribhai Desai and Shri Narhari Dwarkadas Parikh are at present Trustees.”

The Will, made in his own hand in Gujarati was dated Feb.20, 1940, and was probated by the surviving Executor of his Will on May 9, 1949.

A: The auction house in New York told me that there are letters from first owners to prove that Gandhi had gifted them, and to prove they were not stolen. The auction house always has to make public the provenance of these objects, to prove they were not looted. There is far too much in western museums even today that are a result of what was looted during colonial times. This is part of huge political roil between nations. Recently the New York Metropolitan Museum had returned artifacts too, after years of wrenching negotiations. Egypt also wanted some of its objects that are displayed in St Louis Art Museum. The museum said that these objects are better preserved in the US than in Egypt. But the latter claimed that it had invested a lot of money in its museums of late and has the capability to store and display them. It is an ongoing debate. Regardless of outcome, it is interesting to watch these debates because you learn about politics and history from their tone and tenor. Tomorrow museums in the west can make the same argument about India and say that Indian museums do not have the capability to conserve them. What will our reply be?

While we are on the subject of the Will, let us remind ourselves that Gandhiji would not have wanted his objects to be worshipped like this anyway.

Q: In 1996, Phillips auction house accepted the same plea (that is, Gandhi’s manuscript being auctioned was a stolen property on the basis of the Will) and returned Gandhi’s manuscripts to India without auction, on the basis of an agreement. These manuscripts were given away to the auctioners under mysterious terms by Gandhi’s former secretary, Kalyanam, who had taken away with him after his assassination. This is what the former Indian High Commissioner to that time, L.M.Singhvi had written:

It was on the basis of Gandhi’s will and its probate that we succeeded in preventing the auction of a large collection of Gandhi papers by Phillips, a highly specialised and reputed vintage British company. In the event, we were able to force them to surrender the papers to us. Those papers, valued at several million dollars, are now safely lodged in Nehru Memorial Museum. And let it be noted, they were brought to India at no cost to the exchequer since the auction house and Swami Sivaya of Hawaii Temple, who’d entrusted the papers to the former for auction, had no title to the documents.” Read his full article here.

A: I am not familiar with the details of that transaction. But it depends on what kind of a provenance the auction house had for the manuscripts.

Q: The Delhi High Court issued an injunction against the recent auction, on the basis of Navjivan Trust’s petition seeking their declaration as stolen properties. The case has not become infructuous even after the auction, and the next date of hearing is on May 6. The High Court order shows that Navjivan Trust considers the ownership of these memorabilia a mystery. Do you hold that these memorabilia were first gifted. Is there a proof for that?

A: This is an interesting case, and I do not know how this will be pursued now that the objects are on their way back to India. There is a 20-day period after an auction where anyone can raise objection. If the auction house provides proof of the letters of the first tier of transaction to demonstrate that they were indeed gifted, then they are not stolen. But it would be interesting to see how this proceeds. Perhaps, the outcome of this case could become a template for future events.

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