For close to a year Guernsey’s Auction house in New York was planning a sale of objects once owned by the freedom fighter and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. The sale, however, was called off after the South African Heritage Resources Agency reached out to the auction house claiming that the “items were potential national treasures, and hence when something is designated [as such], it requires permits to leave South Africa.” Arlan Ettinger, the president of the auction, house told the New York Post that many of the items were being sold directly by Mandela’s family, which “didn’t apply for permits because they didn’t know they had to”.
This is not the first time the sale has sparked the ire of the South African government. Among the lots is the key to Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, where the leader spent 27 years imprisoned during his fight against apartheid. In late December the country’s minister of sports, arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa, railed against the possibility of the key being sold at auction. “It is unfathomable for [the auction house]…to consider auctioning the key without any consultation with the South African government. The key belongs to the people of South Africa under the care of Robben Island Museum and the South African State. It is not anyone's personal belonging," Mthethwa said.
According to the German news site DW, Mandela's oldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, approached the auction house to hold the sale in order to raise money for a garden and museum at Mandela's burial site. The key has been in the possession of Mandela’s friend and former jailer Christo Brand for years, and Mandela-Amuah approved its sale. In early January the key was pulled from the sale and the auction postponed pending a review by the South African Heritage Resource Agency. To further muddy the international waters, according to the Post, the South African agency and Mandela’s family members are both insisting the auction house should turn the items over to them.
The sale, which would have taken place online on 28 January, also included a signed copy of South Africa’s 1996 constitution, original artwork by the leader, his sunglasses, one of his “Madiba” shirts and pens given to Mandela by former US president George W. Bush and the United Nations, and a red, white and blue blanket gifted to Mandela by former US president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, among other objects.
Neither South African Heritage Resources Agency or Guernsey’s auction house immediately responded to requests for comment.