A New York auction of Nelson Mandela’s belongings has been canceled, and the canceled sale has sparked international outrage.
The exhibit, titled “Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela,” was scheduled to open on January 28 and feature items such as gifts to Mandela from US Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, as well as inscribed books, articles of clothing, signed artwork, and a signed copy of the South African constitution.
The key to Nelson Mandela ‘s prison cell on infamous Robben Island sparked controversy last month when a South African cabinet minister urged the auction to be canceled, saying the key “belongs to the people of South Africa.”
Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s auction house, told us at the time that the sale would take place with or without the key. However, the auction has been canceled entirely.
“We had a major controversy come up,” Ettinger explained of the cancellation on Tuesday. The South African Heritage Resources Agency contacted Guernsey’s, he said, and “determined that these items were potential national treasures, and thus when something is designated [as such], it requires permits to leave South Africa.”
According to Ettinger, despite the fact that many of the items in the auction are being sold by Mandela’s family, who want to use the auction to raise funds for a memorial garden and museum near Mandela’s burial site, the “Mandela family didn’t apply for permits because they didn’t know they had to.”
According to its website, the South African Heritage Resources Agency is “the national administrative body responsible for the protection of South Africa’s cultural heritage.”
Mandela’s personal items included a book inscribed by the late South African president to his own daughter, according to Ettinger, but “the agency was adamant nothing could be sold, and none of these items should have left” South Africa.
To complicate matters further, both the South African agency and Mandela’s family members have demanded that the auction house return the items to them.
“We have the unfortunate dilemma of being in the middle because we are in possession of these items. The government is insisting [the lots] be returned to the government, and the Mandela family is insisting that they be returned to them,” said the auction pro.
Ettinger has even received a letter from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization offering to mediate the situation in Paris.
He described the controversy as “very, very upsetting” because “we devoted the better part of a year [to planning the auction] and were honored beyond imagination… to be raising money to build this beautiful and meaningful park inspired by Nelson Mandela memory” at the leader’s gravesite.
Ettinger stated that under normal circumstances, the auction house would return the items to the consignee — in this case, the family members.
But now, “it’s not for us to make that call,” he said of any next steps. “Let me emphasize that we’re not a big company. … We are known for doing events that have meaning beyond just making money for people,” including nonprofits. “We are now in the middle.”
The auction, which has since been removed from Guernsey’s website, was expected to bring in up to $5 million, and it drew interest from international buyers and museums.
South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Arts, and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, reportedly said of Mandela’s prison cell key being auctioned in a statement last month: “It is unfathomable for Guernsey’s, which is clearly aware of our country’s painful history and the symbolism of the key, to consider auctioning the key without any consultation with the South African government, the heritage authorities in South Africa, and Robben Island Museum.”
Mthethwa also said, “The key must be returned to its rightful owners with immediate effect and this auction must be halted,” adding that he was asking authorities the “appropriate steps that must be taken to stop the auction and to secure the return of the key to South Africa.”
The key was being sold by Mandela’s former prison guard, who had become a close friend. Christo Brand, the former guard, reportedly agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds to the memorial garden.
Guernsey’s had previously expressed optimism about reaching a charitable solution. Next month, the auction house will work on a sale of items from the collection of Elizabeth Meaders, a retired schoolteacher who owns over 50,000 pieces of African American historic items and memorabilia in her home.