A Sotheby’s handout photograph of the Gandhi-Kallenbach papers. (AFP)
New Delhi, July 19: Isa Sarid, custodian of the Gandhi-Kallenbach papers, had attached one key condition to accepting the price offered by India for them.
Six members of the Israel-based Sarid family would have to be invited to an all-expenses-paid, three-week tour of India as state guests.
Sources suggested the 89-year-old great-niece of Hermann Kallenbach, a South African architect and Gandhi’s lifelong friend, planned to be part of the tour. She won’t be making it, though. Hours after sealing the deal on June 26, Isa Sarid passed away.
An email sent on June 27 evening by auction house Sotheby’s, to whom the Sarids had handed the papers after India missed a deadline, confirmed the family had accepted New Delhi’s final offer of £700,000 (Rs 6.06 crore or $1.1 million). The email also informed the Centre of Isa Sarid’s death.
“We were told she was part of the discussions and died within hours of the decision to hand the papers over,” said culture ministry joint secretary V. Venu, who had led the negotiations with Sotheby’s at London.
Her death meant further delay. New Delhi had to wait for the legal process to establish Sarid’s heir. The deal was signed on July 6, just four days before the papers were scheduled to go under the hammer.
The tortuous negotiations had begun in 2011 when historian and The Telegraph columnist Ramachandra Guha discovered the letters, photos and artefacts exchanged between Gandhi and Kallenbach.
Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador to Israel, began talking to Sarid on New Delhi’s behalf. The embassy offered $100,000 (about Rs 55 lakh) but the family refused and demanded $5 million (Rs 27.5cr). The negotiations dragged on and the Centre took its own time to decide.
“There was an internal understanding that the Sarids’ demand was exorbitant, but the culture ministry didn’t want to take the decision,” a senior official said.
The ministry dilly-dallied and eventually forwarded the matter to the Prime Minister’s Office in end-March. Sarid had set a deadline of April 15, which passed without New Delhi deciding anything.
“Eventually, the decision was made on the Prime Minister’s table that the government would not pay $5 million,” the official said. India offered $1 million (Rs 5.5cr). But by the time the embassy got back to the Sarids, it seemed too late.
“The Sarids said that since we had taken too long to decide, they had handed the papers over to Sotheby’s to auction them. The arena now shifted to London,” the official said.
The delay cost India an extra Rs 1 crore, which it had to pay Sotheby’s as commission.
In mid-June, India sent a five-member committee led by Mushirul Hasan, director-general of the National Archives of India, to check the authenticity of the documents. While Hasan and other historians in the team examined the papers, the government’s representatives held discussions with Sotheby’s.
Over several cups of coffee, Sotheby’s was told India was ready to pay only $1 million. The offer was rejected and the Indian team returned.
On June 20, India made its final offer: £700,000 for the Sarids and £125,250 (about Rs 1.08cr) for Sotheby’s.
“Sotheby’s was told that if this price was not accepted, the negotiations would be closed. No phone call or email from the Sarid family or the auction house would be entertained,” the official said.
On June 25, Sotheby’s responded that its clients had accepted the offer subject to two conditions. One was the three-week trip, whose itinerary would be decided by Sarid’s son Eli Sarid and the Indian ambassador to Israel, and which would take place within a year.
The second was that the government must make sure the collection was well preserved and available to researchers.
A third rider was that the material would be withdrawn from the auction only after the entire sum had been received. The government wired £825,250 and on July 6 night came the email settling the issue. The papers are expected to arrive by the end of the month.