Auction of Nelson Mandela items set after court fight with government
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Auction of Nelson Mandela items set after court fight with government
Nelson Mandela’s identification book, which he received after his release from prison in 1993. Mandela’s eldest daughter is moving forward with an auction next month of the former president’s personal belongings after a two-year legal battle with the South African government, which had tried to block such a sale saying the items were artifacts of national heritage. (via Guernsey’s via The New York Times)

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter is moving forward with an auction next month of the former president’s personal belongings after a two-year legal battle with the South African government, which had tried to block such a sale saying the items were artifacts of national heritage.

The proposed sale had drawn attention when it was announced in 2021. South African officials balked, objecting in particular to the sale of a key to the Robben Island prison cell where Mandela was held.

Proceeds from the auction are intended to finance a memorial garden honoring Mandela, who dedicated most of his life to emancipating South Africa from white minority rule, the organizers said. He died in 2013 at 95, 23 years after his release from prison and 19 years after he was elected president.

The key, which was the piece that initially led to the government’s misgivings about the auction, has been part of a traveling exhibit. While it is not currently included in the sale, organizers say there is still a chance it could be added.

In attempting to block the auction, the South African Heritage Resources Agency went to court, arguing in its filings that some of the 70 items now for sale were “heritage objects” under the nation’s Heritage Act and, as such, could not be removed from the country without a permit.

The first attempt at a sale, in 2022, had to be canceled. But in December, a three-judge panel of the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, sided with Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, ruling that the agency’s interpretation of “heritage objects” was “overbroad.”

The decision appears to have cleared the way for a sale by Guernsey’s auction house in New York on Feb. 22. The auction, which will be previewed at Jazz at Lincoln Center and is to take place online, will include Mandela’s official South African Identification Book, personal gifts from U.S. presidents, several of his colorful “Madiba” shirts and even his hearing aids.

The auction house has estimated the collective value of the 70 lots to be between $2 million and $3 million. Makaziwe Mandela, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, has authorized the auction as a fundraiser for the building of the Mandela Memorial Garden, which is planned for 24 acres in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu, where her father grew up and was buried.

In a video interview from Johannesburg, Mandela said her father had made clear that he wanted to be buried “where he came from, among his ancestors,” and also wanted that region, formerly known as the Transkei, to benefit economically from tourism.

“It is my wish that before I close my eyes on nature, I will honor my father with a memorial garden,” she said. “That’s what my father would want.”

Asked of the message she seeks to send through the auction, she said, “I want other people in the world to have a piece of Nelson Mandela — and to remind them, especially in the current situation, of compassion, of kindness, of forgiveness.”

Leomile Mofutsanyana, a heritage officer with the South African Heritage Resources Agency, said in an email that the agency had “no comment on the matter,” adding that “all official statements will be widely communicated in due course.”

Guernsey’s said the auction will include personal letters Mandela wrote from prison, artwork he created during his incarceration on Robben Island and a tennis racket he used while in prison there. The pinstripe suit Mandela wore when he was elected president will also be on offer, as will a woven wool blanket, styled like an American flag, that was a gift from President Barack Obama.

Items are to be offered at a wide range of prices, with bidding set to begin at $3,000 for a pair of black leather shoes lightly worn by Mandela. Bidding on Mandela’s identification book, an all-purpose credential, is set to begin at $75,000. Mandela received his in 1993 after his release from prison.

Makaziwe Mandela said she sought out Guernsey’s because it has handled sales of memorabilia of other “important people who were fighting for freedom,” like John F. Kennedy and Rosa Parks.

Nelson Mandela’s fight was against the racist apartheid system of South Africa. A pivotal leader of the African National Congress, which the government banned, he went underground as part of its guerrilla wing, Spear of the Nation. He was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government. Years later, he negotiated an end to apartheid, at first secretly from prison. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with President F.W. de Klerk in 1993.

Representing Mandela “is absolutely more than humbling,” said Arlan Ettinger, Guernsey’s president, and “a bit overwhelming.”

Ettinger said the key to the prison cell is owned by Christo Brand, who was Mandela’s prison guard and later became his friend. Ettinger said it has never been consigned to Guernsey’s.

“We are in discussions with Mr. Brand,” Ettinger added. “And it could happen that the key will be in the auction, but I don’t know yet.”

South Africa’s Heritage Act went into effect in 2000 and was updated in 2019 in ways that helped define “heritage objects.”

According to court papers, the South African Heritage Resources Agency argued that 29 of the items going up for auction were heritage objects and, as such, had been illegally exported.

But the court dispatched with the agency’s effort to stop the auction and force the return of the items. The ruling said, “It is far from clear how far the “heritage object” net spreads.” The regulation the agency had cited in its legal argument, the judge, V. Ngalwana, added, “is so overbroad that just about anything that President Mandela touched, or is ‘associated’ with or ‘related to’ him, can be considered a heritage object.”

“What of the tens of hundreds of Springbok rugby jerseys or ruling party attire autographed by President Mandela on the campaign trail,” the judge wrote. All 29 objects could not possibly be deemed heritage objects under the act, he said, writing, “The Agency’s case collapses in its entirety.”

Ettinger said he has now been advised that the recent ruling resolved the matter and that the auction can proceed.

Makaziwe Mandela said all the auction proceeds — aside from shipping and other logistical costs — would go toward the construction of the garden. She also dismissed media reports of tension within the Mandela family over her claim to her father’s items. “They have not even mounted a legal case; they just went to the papers,” she said of relatives seeking the objects. “I am the one who is responsible. And I’m not going to back off.

“My father,” she added, “deserves a place where he can be remembered.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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