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International Outrage Stops New York Auction of Nelson Mandela’s Personal Items, Including Objects from His Robben Island Prison Cell: ‘Belongs to the People of South Africa’

An auction of the late Nelson Mandela’s possessions has been canceled. The New York sale of several items from the former South African president’s personal collection has been blocked by his countrymen who contend that certain properties should belong to them.

According to Art-Net, the online auction titled “Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela” was scheduled for Jan. 28. 

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela enjoy a warm welcome at Queens Park, Toronto. (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

His daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, approached Guernsey to do the auction. 

She and other family members of the freedom fighter had hoped to start the bidding, which was expected to begin at $250,000, and wanted to make approximately $5 million to support a 24-acre memorial garden and museum dedicated to his life and activism at his burial site.

However, the South African Heritage Resources Agency states that the permits needed for certain items in the sale were never filed. Without this filing, legally those artifacts itemized in the sale could not be a part of the Guernsey auction in New York City at the end of the month.

One of the artifacts of the 33-lot sale that the agency had an objection to is the key to Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, one that he lived in during 18 of his 27 incarcerated years.

South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Arts, and Culture Nathi Mthethwa was particularly offended by the sale of the key. 

When the news was announced, he said, “It is unfathomable for Guernsey’s, which is clearly aware of the painful history of our country 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.”

“This key belongs to the people of South Africa under the care of the Robben Island Museum and the South African State. It is not anyone’s personal belonging,” said Mthethwa.

“The key symbolizes South Africa’s painful history whilst also representing triumph of the human spirit over evil,” he continued.

“This key is living proof of South Africans’ long walk to freedom and belongs to the people of South Africa,” he added. “It therefore must rightfully be returned to the country.”

According to an interview on CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s SiriusXM podcast, Arlan Ettinger, the president of the auction house, a prison guard named Christo Brand, who later became close friends with Mandela, owned the prison properties. In addition to the key, Brand owned an exercise bike and tennis racquet used by Mandela while he was imprisoned that he offered up for the auction.

Other items that would have been on sale are less controversial. 

Some offerings are paintings and free-hand drawings, including one picture of the lighthouse on Robben Island and a black-and-white charcoal sketch of a chain being broken. Also included in the lot is a bronze cast of his fist and a signed handprint.

Page Six reports that gifts from American heads of state were up for grabs, stating presents from U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were listed on the lot. Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, gave Mandela a blanket.

This is not the first Mandela auction halted. In 2018, a South African charity offered a chance for the highest bidder to spend the night in his Robben Island prison cell. After community outrage, CEO SleepOut trustees said they didn’t mean to offend and offered their “sincerest apologies.”

Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 in 2013. 

His legacy is rich. He fought against the segregationist apartheid system for the majority of his life. Because of this work, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and was elected the first Black president of South Africa in 1994. Madiba, his nickname, is still regarded as one of the most iconic voices in the history of the world for equality.

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