South Africa halts an ‘unfathomable’ Nelson Mandela auction in New York

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
 CIRCA 1990: Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa in 1990 - The leader NELSON MANDELA during the meeting of African National Congress (ANC) after his liberation. (Photo by Lily FRANEY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1990: Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa in 1990 - The leader NELSON MANDELA during the meeting of African National Congress (ANC) after his liberation. (Photo by Lily FRANEY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
  • Guernsey’s announced that it would host a 33-lot sale titled Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela. 
  • To top off this list of artifacts Guernsey’s big-ticket item was the former president’s Robben Island cell key. 
  • Under the National Heritage Resources Act, Nathi Mthethwa led arrangements to suspend the auction.


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

However prominent, it was jarring when Guernsey’s announced that it would on 28 January 2021 host a 33-lot sale 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 in addition to a quilt with his name on it, “a powerful bronze cast of Mandela’s fist”, a tennis racquet and exercise bicycle that he used while imprisoned, as well as a copy of the 1996 Constitution that he signed. 

To top off this list of “Important Artifacts” Guernsey’s big-ticket item for the sale was the former president’s Robben Island cell key. 

“In a world divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, few items rival the importance of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island Cell Key,” read the statement 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 ascendency to the office of President. And with Mandela’s rise, so rose the hopes and dreams of countless millions around the world.”

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

Since then Guernsey’s has called off the auction. Under the National Heritage Resources Act, Minister of Sports, Art and Culture Nathi Mthethwa led arrangements to suspend the 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,” Mthethwa told the Associated Press. 

“The key symbolises South Africa’s painful history whilst also representing the triumph of the human spirit over evil,” read the ministerial statement explaining the suspension. “This key is living proof of South Africans’ long walk to freedom and belongs to the people of South Africa. It therefore must rightfully be returned to the country.”

Speaking to Page Six, Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger confirmed this saying when the South African Heritage Resources Agency contacted them, the agency said that the key “requires permits to leave South Africa.” 

Soon after it was determined to have been illegally exported, arrangements for its return were made.  Considering how personal these items were, the auction brings up questions of provenance. In the auction industry, provenance refers to the record of ownership of a work of art or artifact. It is used as a guide to authenticate the item in question while proving that it was not stolen. In order for any items to be auctioned, auction houses like Guernsey’s need to determine the possession’s provenance and the validity thereof.

Cosigned by Mandela’s family members, the sale is said to have been a fundraiser for a memorial garden and museum dedicated to the revolutionary’s life. The key, tennis racket and exercise bike however were reportedly consigned by Christo Brand, a former Robben Island guard who became close friends with Mandela. So too was the copy of the constitution which Mandela made out to Brand when signing it.  

Responding to the consignment, Brand’s business manager, Andrew Russell told EWN that Brand was not the person they were making him out to be. 

"Anyone who knows his journey with Nelson Mandela from 1981 right through to when Nelson Mandela passed away, Christo was a guest of the Mandela family at his funeral, his book was published on the insistence of Nelson Mandela because he wanted Christo's story to be told. Ahmed Kathrada wrote the foreword to Chriso's book, so Christo is an incredible man.” 


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24