South Africa suspends ‘incomprehensible’ Nelson Mandela auction in New York


CIRCA 1990: Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa in 1990 – Leader NELSON MANDELA at the meeting of the African National Congress (ANC) after his release. (Photo by Lily FRANEY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

  • Guernsey’s has announced that it will hold a 33-lot sale titled Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela.
  • To top off this list of artefacts, the most expensive item in Guernsey was the key to the former president’s Robben Island cell.
  • Under the National Heritage Resources Act, Nathi Mthethwa has made arrangements to suspend the auction.

Created in the 1970s, Guernsey has built its reputation as a credible auction house. From the sale of Mark ‘Big Mac’ McGwire baseball for $3 million, pre-Fidel Castro Cuban cigars, important John F. Kennedy documents, to the record sale of Jerry Garcia guitars, the auction house is no stranger to big name auctions.

Important as it is, it came as a shock when Guernsey’s announced it would be holding a 33-lot sale on January 28, 2021 titled Important artifacts from the life of Nelson Mandela.

Those interested in the auction could expect personal effects like one of his Madiba shirts; gifts from Harvard University, the Obamas and George W. Bush and a pair of his RayBan aviator sunglasses. These are in addition to a quilt bearing his name, “a mighty bronze cast of Mandela’s fist”, a tennis racket and exercise bike he used while in custody, and a copy of the 1996 Constitution which he signed.

To top off this list of ‘significant artifacts’, Guernsey’s most significant item for sale was the key to the former president’s Robben Island cell.

“In a world divided between oppressed and oppressed, few elements rival the significance of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island Cell Key,” reads the declaration announcing the auction. “It was this key that unjustly held Mr. Mandela captive, and it was this key that ultimately led to his freedom and ascension to the post of president. And with Mandela’s ascension, the hopes and dreams of countless millions around the world have grown.

According to Artnet News, the value of the sale was estimated at $5 million.

Guernsey’s has since canceled the auction. Under the National Heritage Resources Act, Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has taken steps to suspend the auction. “It is unfathomable for Guernsey, which is clearly aware of our country’s painful history and the symbolism of the key, to consider auctioning off the key without any consultation with the South African government,” Mthethwa told the Associated Press.

“The key symbolizes South Africa’s painful history while representing the triumph of the human spirit over evil,” read the ministerial statement explaining the suspension. “This key is living proof of how far South Africans have come to freedom and belongs to the people of South Africa. It must therefore legitimately be returned to the country.

Talk to Page 6, Guernsey President Arlan Ettinger confirmed this statement when contacted by the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the agency said the key “requires permits to leave South Africa”.

Shortly after it was determined that he had been illegally exported, arrangements were made for his return. Given the personal nature of these objects, the auction raises questions of provenance. In the auction industry, provenance refers to the record of ownership of a work of art or artifact. It serves as a guide to authenticate the object in question while proving that it has not been stolen. In order for items to be auctioned, auction houses like Guernsey need to determine the origin of the property and its validity.

Co-signed by members of Mandela’s family, the sale would have been a fundraiser for a memorial garden and museum dedicated to the life of the revolutionary. The key, tennis racket and exercise bike, however, were reportedly handed over by Christo Brand, a former Robben Island guard who befriended Mandela. So was the copy of the constitution Mandela handed to Brand when he signed it.

Responding to the mailing, Brand Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Russell said EWN that Brand was not the person they claimed to be.

“Anyone who knows his journey with Nelson Mandela from 1981 until Nelson Mandela’s death, Christo was a guest of the Mandela family at his funeral, his book was published at Nelson Mandela’s insistence because he wanted Christo’s story be told Ahmed Kathrada wrote the foreword to Chriso’s book, so Christo is an incredible man.


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