The “Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela” auction was planned for Jan. 28 in New York City with items such as “gifts Mandela received from US Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush plus inscribed books, articles of clothing, signed artwork, and a signed copy of the South African constitution."
One of the most controversial items up for auction was the key to Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell. Last month, a cabinet minister from South Africa said the key “belongs to the people of South Africa,” as he pushed for the cancellation of the auction.
Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Arts, and Culture, issued a statement regarding Mandela’s prison cell key that was slated for auction.
“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," he said.
Mthethwa continued: “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.”
After saying that the auction would happen with our without the key, Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s auction house, announced the auction had been canceled.
“We had a major controversy come up,” Ettinger explained.
Guernsey's auction house was contacted by the South African Heritage Resources Agency which “determined that these items were potential national treasures, and hence when something is designated [as such], it requires permits to leave South Africa.”
Although many of the items in the auction were being sold by Mandela’s own family in an attempt to raise funds for a memorial garden and museum around Mandela’s place of burial, according to Ettinger, "the Mandela family didn’t apply for permits because they didn’t know they had to.”
Making matters even more complicated, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, along with Mandela’s family, have both asked for the auction house to return the artifacts to them.
“We have the unfortunate dilemma of being in the middle because we are in possession of these items,” Ettinger said. “The government is insisting [the lots] be returned to the government, and the Mandela family is insisting that they be returned to them.”
According to reports, the auction was estimated to gross around $5 million in revenue and received interest from international art collectors and museums.