The head of the New York auction house that planned to sell off the key to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell next month tells Page Six he may have unlocked a solution to return the key to South Africa.
But he added that despite South Africa’s objections to the auction overall, “the sale is absolutely occurring.”
As part of a Jan. 28 sale, “Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela,” auction house Guernsey’s planned to offer up the key to the prison cell where Mandela was infamously held on Robben Island, before he ultimately became South Africa’s first Black president.
The planned sale of the key turned into a major controversy last week when a South African cabinet minister urged that the auction be canceled, and said that the key, “belongs to the people of South Africa.”
But Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger told us on Tuesday that he’s hammering out a solution to appease the South African government — as well as members of Mandela’s family who want to raise funds for a memorial garden and museum around Mandela’s burial site via the auction.
Ettinger told us: “We’ve already been contacted by people who are thinking like we’ve been thinking,” and that the sale of the key could be a “wonderful situation for someone to make a donation for the garden… that offer comes to us like someone was reading our mind.”
He said an unnamed collector has reached out in the wake of the controversy to make an offer on the key, and would then donate the proceeds to the memorial, as well as return the key to South Africa.
An insider told us on Tuesday: “Guernsey’s already received at least one offer from a collector willing to make a substantial donation to the [memorial garden] in exchange for the release of the key back to South Africa. Ettinger has asked the South African authorities for a week to sort out the matter and explore options.”
The source added, “The January auction will go forward with items from Mandela’s family, and others, even if a deal for the return of the key is reached.”
Ettinger told us that the auction house is figuring out “an agreement with the [South African] government to sort this out,” and that, “with or without the key, the auction will be going forward.”
He added on Tuesday: “We are doing our best to get this satisfactorily resolved. It’s a little premature to say… whether [the key] would be in the auction, or someone makes an offer prior to the auction.” But that, “Everyone wants to do the right thing.”
He pointed out that his auction house has previously conducted sales including artifacts from Malcolm X and Rosa Parks’ archives, with buyers including the New York Public Library.
The key is being offered via Mandela’s former jailhouse guard, who became his close friend. The former guard, Christo Brand, had reportedly already agreed that a portion of the proceeds would go to the memorial garden.
Other lots — being sold by the Mandela family — include one of the leader’s colorful, signature shirts, as well as gifts from former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, plus signed artwork, and a copy of the South African constitution signed by Mandela.
Also for sale is an exercise bike and a tennis racquet from Mandela’s imprisonment.
South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Arts, and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa previously said in a statement last week of the key being auctioned: “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.”
Mthethwa also said: “The key must be returned to its rightful owners with immediate effect and this auction must be halted,” and added that he was asking authorities “appropriate steps that must be taken to stop the auction and to secure the return of the key to South Africa.”
A rep for the auction house said there are no legal grounds to stop the auction, and Ettinger told us, “the sale is absolutely occurring.”