New York, New York

Photo by Vitali Maniakin

Gandhi’s Return

Last week at a Manhattan auction house, five of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal items were on the block when second thoughts crept in. From the back offices, observing an auction in suspense.

High drama was in the air last Thursday, on the 39th floor of a Midtown skyscraper. Mere hours remained before five personal items once belonging to Mahatma Gandhi were scheduled to go under the hammer at the Antiquorum auction house, a few blocks north on East 57th Street. The items included the great man’s pocket watch, his sandals, an eating bowl and plate, as well as the glasses through which, it was said, Gandhi had visualized India’s freedom. The very idea that these items should be subject to commercial speculation, and slip the grasp of the nation with the greatest historic claim to them, had sent Indian newspapers into a frenzy of reproach.

It had been a crazy few days for James Otis, the 45-year-old seller of the items, currently hiding in the offices of the PR firm he had hired. On Saturday, the controversy had ballooned into an international incident when the Indian government vowed to do everything in its power to stop the auction from going forward. Otis met with the Indian Consul General on Monday, without reaching an agreement, and by Tuesday was facing fugitive status when the Indian high court passed an injunction declaring the auction illegal.

Wednesday negotiations showed promise, but that was yesterday. Now it was 10:30 a.m. on the day of the auction, and the Indian government wasn’t calling. And after staying up all night answering emails from hundreds of pissed-off Indians—including a few death threats—Otis was beginning to think that canceling the auction might not be such a bad idea. But was this even possible? The answer, presumably, lay somewhere in his contract with the auction house, but after a few minutes of trying to decipher it Otis gave up.

“Is there anyone in the building I can pay $500 an hour to?” he said.

As it turned out, there was. They were in the corner office down the hall. Minutes later, Otis joined them there to authorize a letter to Bob Maron, the chairman of the auction house, expressing Otis’s wish to call the whole thing off. Legally the letter meant little, since the auction contract was binding, but given the public outcry it was still worth going on record, the lawyers said.

There were two of them, one on the large side, whose corpulent physique and straining shirt buttons seemed to suggest all the power he was prepared to unleash, should the need arise.

“It’s going to be an interesting afternoon,” he said at one point, sounding like a connoisseur of interesting afternoons.

His partner was thinner and more mobile, all jaw and elbow, like Jimmy Stewart. Both were red-cheeked, immaculately shaved, with manicured cuticles and cufflinks that gleamed like incisors. The walls were adorned with framed pheasants and diplomas from Yale.

The next move, the lawyers told Otis (somewhat more hairily attired in jeans, an untucked shirt, and brown Pumas with orange highlights), was to contact the Indian CG and advise him of Otis’s change of heart. If they could get the Indian government to act, that would take the heat off Otis.

And so: battle stations, with Jimmy on one side of the phone and his partner on the other. Jimmy took point, punching the number while his associate watched his flank. Suddenly the CG came on, via speakerphone—and almost immediately put them on hold.

“He wants to get everyone in the room, now,” Jimmy’s partner muttered. “It’s just so predictable. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, so we know the drill.”

The CG agreed, but there were limits to what he could do as an official representative of India. (He was also, somehow, his country’s ambassador to Morocco.) Then the CG was back, along with some number of other invisible parties—at least one, presumably, listening from Delhi.

“I think our interests are aligned here, at least for today,” Jimmy said.

The CG agreed, but there were limits to what he could do as an official representative of India. (He was also, somehow, his country’s ambassador to Morocco.) He did, however, have a close friend who was also a lawyer, and just happened to have India’s best interests at heart.

Moments later the friend came on the line, and after a brief conversation it became clear that, given the binding contract with the auction house, and the questionable jurisdiction of the injunction by the high court of India, the prospects of legally blocking the sale looked doubtful. It was time to start thinking about plan B.

“My suggestion is this,” the CG’s friend said. “You can preemptively beat Maron over the head, OK? It is now quarter to 12. If you want, call a press conference in front of the place, in front of his location—not on the second floor or whatever floor he’s on, but in front of his building.”

A public denunciation of the auction by the owner of the items, he prophesized, combined with the Indian high court’s injunction, however questionable, couldn’t fail to have a chilling effect on the bidding.

Jimmy put the phone on mute. “If we don’t get assurances from Maron at one o’clock that he’s going to withdraw the items,” he told his partner, “then I think we have no choice.”

His partner gave a curt nod. It was beginning to look like a showdown was their only move.

Jimmy took the phone off mute. “I think the ambassador should be at the auction,” he said. “We’re willing to go with Mr. Otis, and meet you all there at uh… Is it at three for sure, guys?”

“It might go early,” said Otis. “It depends on how fast the auction—”

“What time does it start?”

“It already started. He’s on the floor now.”

The auction, Otis explained, included more than 300 watches. The lot with Gandhi’s watch and other belongings was expected to go under the hammer at 3:00. “But you never know.”

Jimmy hung up. It was 11:53. They were scheduled to speak with Maron at 1:00. It couldn’t wait. Jimmy punched the numbers.

“This is fun,” Jimmy’s partner said, with a crocodile gleam in his eye. “It gets the juice going again.”

The auction house came on the line. Was Maron available? He wasn’t.

“It’s extremely urgent that he call us back right now,” he said.

They hung up.

“It’s up to Maron,” Jimmy said. “Let’s see if he blinks.”

The room went quiet, the kind of quiet heard in submarines following a torpedo launch.

“I feel it would be very easy,” said Otis, clearly still thinking about Gandhi for some reason, “to stage a nonviolent protest in the auction house. It would be so easy to shut it down.”

“You sit down in the lotus position!” said Jimmy, who seemed to enjoy a good joke. “The Gandhi position, right?”

Otis pressed on. “I could take five or 10 people with me, and we’ll just circle the items, and we will not let anyone get through. It’s a way that the Indians—”

Otis stood to address the phone. At six-five, he’s strikingly tall for a man of peace. “No, you’ll get arrested,” Jimmy’s partner said. “We don’t want that. We don’t want to make you look like a kook.”

The phone rang. It was Maron. Once again the lawyers loomed over the little black phone.

“Please understand that we’re a little bit shocked to hear this from James at this point.” Maron said.

“That may be,” Jimmy said, “but that’s his decision, and he’s the owner.”

Now Otis stood to address the phone. At six-five, he’s strikingly tall for a man of peace.

“Hey Bob? It’s James. How are you?”

Courtesies executed, Otis brought up the email threats he had received in the past few days, along with the threats that had reportedly been made to the Indian consulate, and the auction house itself. “So it’s sort of gotten a little bit away from the spirit in which these items were supposed to help,” he said.

“I just want to say, James, that we don’t feel that there are any credible threats and we think that the best course of action is to follow through with the auction. I think we’re going to have a very successful day, and I can only hope that you’ll reconsider, I really do.”

“I’m sorry to butt in,” Jimmy said, “but it’s not for any of us to determine whether the threats are credible. The threats are threats and you disregard them at your peril.”

Maron said he’d have to call back.

Two minutes later, the phone rang—Maron’s lawyer: finally, a worthy foe. Jimmy’s partner slid to the windowsill and saddled up, one leg hoisted, wearing a full frown. Jimmy plucked a pant leg and grabbed hold of his jaw.

The enemy’s brief went on for eight minutes, and it was devastating. In the space of 41 grammatically unassailable sentences, each one pounded home like a fencepost, he obliterated the Indian high court’s injunction, incontrovertibly established his client’s legal stake in the sale, and announced a deal he had already made with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security that somehow rendered any possible objection moot.

“Here’s my issue,” Maron’s lawyer concluded. “I just underwent a colonoscopy.”

Condolences—many of them, it seemed, heartfelt—briefly checked the lawyer’s savage peroration.

“Everything is fine,” the sonuvabitch went on. “I’m talking to you from the recovery room. My wife’s about to drive me back to my office. So I’m a little bit groggy.”

At last he stopped, and a fell silence stole over the room as realization dawned: They had just been outgunned by a groggy man who just pulled his pants on.

Very tenacious guy,” Jimmy’s associate said quietly.

They hung up.

There was nothing for it but to march over to the auction house in person and appeal to the global press. Thanks to a few calls from the PR guy, they were already assembled, and clamoring for a statement.

The lawyers elected to remain behind, and from the door of their office offered one last piece of advice: “Good luck. Be brief. Let the Indians do the talking.”

At 1:57 p.m., lead by the PR guy and tailed by a camera crew, Otis set forth. Five minutes later, the small party rounded the corner of 58th and Madison.

CNN was preoccupied with an even more tantalizing story about an R&B singer’s recent efforts to shove his girlfriend out of a moving car. “We’ve got a circus,” the PR guy said.

And so it was. The TV reporters cursed the print reporters, and the print reporters cursed the TV reporters. Heavy cameras knocked skulls, and at least one reporter scuttled through the scrum on his hands and knees, emerging like a groundhog from below. Otis read his statement four times. By the fourth reading, emotion overtook him, and his PR rep hustled him into a cab.

Five minutes later they were back on the 39th floor. It was over. Otis stood shuffling press cards in a daze. Everything that could be done had been done—short, that is, of a nonviolent protest. The auction would go on. Whether the press conference indeed produced a “chilling effect” remained to be seen.

The PR guy turned the TV on, but CNN was preoccupied with an even more tantalizing story about an R&B singer’s recent efforts to shove his girlfriend out of a moving car. Then someone remembered that auction houses usually broadcast their auctions online.

It was true. On the auction house’s website lot 358 was being sold—six lots to go. Each went quickly, falling within or near the estimate.

Then lot 364 came up and everything stalled. “They’re going to read a statement,” said Jimmy, who had sidled in for the denouement. Basically, according to the deal worked out by Maron’s lawyer, Gandhi’s stuff would be held for two weeks after the sale, giving all parties a chance to make their claims.

At last the bidding began. In four seconds the bid quadrupled the high estimate of $30,000. Twenty-two seconds later it reached $500,000. Exactly one minute after the auction began the bid hit one million, and all the men in the room, regardless of background, became little boys.

Eight hundred thousand dollars later the bidding stopped. Otis sat, stunned. All along he had planned to donate the proceeds to Gandhi-esque causes. Now he turned to Jimmy, standing behind him.

“So,” he said. “Can you help me with the financial side of this?”