The Indian government has paid Rs. 7 crore – a quarter of the price originally demanded by the seller, but still above the auctioneer’s estimates – to acquire a set of documents detailing Mahatma Gandhi’s friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German-born Jewish architect whom he met in South Africa in 1904.
As a result of the three-way agreement signed between the government of India, auction house Sotheby’s and Kallenbach’s family, the collection has been withdrawn from Tuesday’s auction listings, and will soon make its way to the National Archives of India in New Delhi.
Historians, including National Archives Director General Mushirul Hassan, who inspected the collection in London, as well as Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani, had impressed upon the government the historical value of the papers which shed light on Gandhiji’s early public life in South Africa and his return to India, as well as his private relationship with his family. Efforts were thus initiated to acquire the papers, despite the government’s general policy not to participate directly in auctions and thereby push up the value of such items, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.
In this case, the letters, papers and photographs had been in the possession of Kallenbach’s grand-niece Isa Sarid, who quoted an initial price of $5 million or Rs. 27.6 crore, according to a statement issued by Culture Minister Kumari Selja on Tuesday.
Since “this offer was considered unacceptable by the Government of India”, negotiators brought the price down to the final clincher of 825,250 British pounds, or about Rs. 7 crore. However, this was still well above Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate of 500,000 to 700,000 British pounds.
The collection has aroused interest partly because of last year's Gandhi biography by Pultizer-prize winning author Joseph Lelyveld, which cited letters between Gandhi and Kallenbach that some reviewers interpreted as hinting at a homosexual relationship.