On Russell Street in Kolkata, the sound of the auctioneer’s hammer gets fainter by the day. The charm of the city’s old-world auction houses is slowly giving way to the brutal reality of their endangered existence.
Russell Street is adjacent to Park Street—the commercial heart of the city—and hence one of the more popular attractions. It is home to what can easily be labelled the heritage of Kolkata: three quaint auction houses. The most notable is the Russell Exchange (the oldest, having opened in 1940), then there are the Modern Exchange (1952) and Suman’s Exchange (1972). Apart from these, there’s Victor Brothers on neighbouring Park Street.
Click here to view a slideshow on auction houses of Russell Street
All through the year, every Sunday, from about noon till 3.30pm, the halls come alive...well just about, thanks to the dealers and agents who seem to be the only clients still interested in the auctions. There are also a few dedicated collectors.
As Shiv Bakshi, proprietor of Suman’s Exchange, says, new–age dealers frequent auction houses for cheap but genuine buys, which they can then sell directly to buyers in cities with high purchasing power such as Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad.
Through 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 Burma teak furniture, old English pottery, porcelain, cutlery, carpets, and so on. The auctioneers would receive a commission, as they still do, and it was a good deal for all involved. Often, the auctions were even held in the homes of sellers to assure customers of the authenticity of the items.
Today, with the advent of malls and Internet shopping, not only is everything fresh and new, but many stores offer exchange schemes whereby used goods can be replaced with new ones. Customers would rather purchase a Lladró statuette from the sparkling South City Mall than a sculpture that even the auctioneers admit is not always in the best of condition.
Yet not all is lost. There is still a steadfast breed of connoisseurs. Bakshi tells us about one of his favourite clients, a Japanese gentleman, who frequents Kolkata every two-three months to buy rare artefacts, especially glassware. The two men are united by their love for the old and share a bond that surpasses commercial interests.
The auction houses continue to advertise through another venerable Kolkata institution—The Statesman newspaper.
Auction house owners sometimes face harassment at the hands of firms eyeing their prime piece of real estate—but as long as organizations such as Unicef, consulates and embassies continue to use their services, they can hold their ground.
While the owner of Modern Exchange, Arun Dey, is sceptical of how long these treasure troves of antiquity can hold out, the most confident and unperturbed voice is that of the oldest such establishment, Russell Exchange. As its owner Arshad Salim puts it, there are no words to compare the wares peddled by malls and what rests in these auction houses, the guardians of the old.
Diptanshu Roy is the creative group head at the advertising agency Bates 141 in Kolkata. He is working towards an exhibition of his documentary photographs of Russell Street later this year. Karishma Siddique Roy is a fashion designer, freelance writer and radio jockey based in Kolkata.