The sound of the auctioneer’s hammer gets fainter by the day on Kolkata’s Russel Street. The charm of the city’s old-world auction houses is slowly giving way to the vicious truth of their perilous existence
Editorial summons for a scribe is exciting, offer to work for a re-christened product is alluring but editorial deadlines are terrorising. And it is that very terror that roused me from my Sunday slumber as I made my way to the auction houses on Kolkata’s Russell Street. At the very beginning, it didn’t look like a perfect start to a Sunday, as men, irrespective of their social standing, screamed, ululated and celebrated with mannerisms that would have made the Indian Cricket World Cup winning team feel shy. Bordering Park Street, Russell Street, now renamed as Anandilal Poddar Sarani to obliterate its colonial past, is still home to a long-drawn British tradition of auctions. The oldest of them is Russell Exchange, having opened in 1940. Then, there is Modern Exchange (1952) and the relatively new Suman Exchange (1972).
Sarfaraz Javed, sits on a high podium every Sunday, trying to keep a fading seventy-year-old tradition, started by her father Abdul Majed, alive. At first glance, she looked like a school teacher, trying to sober a bunch of elderly unruly students who were at war with each other over treasures and trifles. But slowly the excitement faded and as I started to look through their prism, I was overtaken with curiosity, urge and materialistic desire. The alluring summons of the auctioneer to place a bid, the fervour with which bids were placed, the low prices at which covetable goods came under the hammer, and the charged atmosphere at the auction hall—all these metamorphosed me from an observer to an eager contestant in a matter of minutes.
Not everything up for auction last Sunday could be described as collectors’ items. Samit Ghosh bought a gramophone record player for Rs 390. His friend Subir got a push-dial telephone for Rs 55 while Tithi Roy was all smiles after acquiring a porcelain vase for just Rs 600. However, Tithi had no plans of decorating her drawing room with the vase just as Sen’s sound system is not for his personal use. They’re part of the gang of around hundred people who flock to Kolkata’s auction houses every Sunday to bid for everything from broken telephones to four-poster mahogany beds. They’re a diverse mix of scrap dealers, small-time mechanics, furniture dealers, curio-hunters and antique collectors of diverse classes, ages and backgrounds. S. Mallick, who belongs to one of the oldest and most distinguished families of the city and is a regular at the auctions, recalls, “There was a time when these auction houses were treasure troves. Furniture from Felix Aubert, glass set from Belgium, chandeliers and much more used to be auctioned. It was very thrilling to bid for such stuff and win the bid. Even watching the auctions used to be fun. Today, there’s a lot of junk mixed in with some fine stuff. That’s why you see so many low-end dealers at the auctions.” Javed agrees: “The class has certainly come down and these days we get to see a minuscule section of the earlier crowd. There used be people for whom showing up at the Sunday auction was not just prestigious but also equally addictive like the races on Saturday.
Kolkata is the only city in India that holds such live auctions every week. Ironically, auction houses witnessed its boom when the city was on the decline and is now facing a tough time when things have started looking up for the city. “Auction houses were doing very well when there was a rush among big businessmen, corporate houses, foreign airlines and diplomatic missions to leave the city during the volatile years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We used to sell very good stuff, especially furniture,” says Arshad Salim of Russell Exchange, the youngest of the three owners. According to Salim, throughout the 19th century, auction houses were the perfect intermediaries for the British or well-heeled Parsis leaving the city. Locals would seize the opportunity to adorn their homes with antiques such as original Burma teak furniture, old English pottery, porcelain, cutlery, carpets, etc. The auctioneers would receive a commission, as they still do, and it was a good deal for all the heads involved. Often, the auctions were even held in the homes of sellers to assure customers of the authenticity of the items.
These days, they auction everything – from Victorian statues to colonial furniture, from curios to crockery, from books to old laptops and even clothes. Russell Exchange even auctions old clothes on Thursdays. “Very recently, I sold a wedding dress by Ritu Kumar for INR 85,” quips Javed who is the auctioneer for the first half of the proceedings from 11 am on Sundays.
Across the road from Russell Exchange is Suman’s Exchange which appears to be more discerning in what it offers. “We don’t accept low-value junk. Most of what we sell is high-value stuff, especially curios, silverware, decorative items and furniture. We’re also the exclusive auctioneers for foreign missions,” says proprietor N.K. Bakshi who is a collector himself. According to Bakshi, it’s still possible to find treasures from old houses being pulled down, people moving out of Kolkata and its adjoining township or landed families who have fallen on hard times.
But both Samil and Bakshi admit to adopting innovative measures to keep the business going. “These days we cannot sell anything that is older than 75 years as the law prohibits us from doing so. So, we are forced to sell reproductive furniture which is certainly not antique but the look and feel is there,” says Salim. “This law makes no sense. A genuine antique is a very rare item that has historical value. A clock owned by my grandfather can’t be called an antique requiring registration with the authorities,” Bakshi says. Under this law, anyone possessing any item that’s more than 75 years old has to get it registered with the state archaeology department and the department’s permission is mandatory for its sale. “It’s too much of a hassle for people,” he adds. The day draws to a close. The gates collapse on the shop’s facade.