18 Feb

Got started on that list today with the Sunday auction at The Russel Exchange, on Russel Street. As a life-long devotee of take-your-time-with-things, today’s experience ended up being more of a taster, especially as I was with friends who were hungry and less fascinated than I was. We stayed for just under two hours, and the auctioneer had reached lot number sixty something, out of 300?400? plus lots to be auctioned. There was a neat little booklet listing all the items, and a page of rules, that was handed out to participants and watchers on.


We reached at 11, the scheduled time for the auction to begin, but were told that it is closer to 11.30 usually, before the whole thing begins.


Calcutta, Sunday, fair enough. Even the metro has a leisurely start on Sundays-at 9.50AM. So do I, come to think of it!


So yes. One is supposed to inspect the goods for auction the day before, on Saturday, but you’re allowed to touch them and examine them on Sunday as well, before the auction begins. Everything is crammed into a facility that resembles a massive two-story garage or small warehouse; there is nothing ‘curated’ about the display that’s fo’sho! That adds to its charm, if you ask me, because you carry the expectation of a hidden gem popping up in a corner, or in that showcase there, which makes it special. I’m a fan of beauty and chaos co-existing in everyday life and hidden gems in general, so its aesthetic appealed very strongly to me. Much like finding a fragrant, flowering plant in a corner lot piled high with construction debris and detritus, and/or a secret garden.


By the way, ask for permission before you take photographs, especially if you have a hobby camera, like an SLR. They don’t refuse, but ask you to not take a photograph of every item for sale.

Today’s auction was conducted by one of the three siblings who own The Russel Exchange. She sat on a platform with a gavel and a mike, reading out from the list as employees held up the item of the moment for buyers to see.


There was everything from junk that only held value as recyclable garbage (half a helmet!), to items that could be repaired and used (telephone instruments, mixer-grinders), to items that could be used as is (Samsonite suitcases and strolleys), to decorative (carved wooden boats, paintings, china figures, glassware) and more valuable pieces of pottery (that I did not stay back to see). Many of the items were bags full of random things that sold as a collective lot: purses, light fixtures, scissors etc. Some of those went without any bids, some went as low as Rs. 30, and one bag of door locks started at Rs. 20-ish and finally sold for close to Rs. 1000! If you’re the highest bidder for an item, your name is written down and you’re expected to pay 50% of the amount upfront, and the rest can be paid when you collect your purchase (you have till Wednesday 5PM to do so).

You can pick out the pros from the first timers by the seriousness with which they stare at their booklets, marking off the items they intend to bid on, and the casualness with which they make their bids. At the time of bidding, they almost disinterestedly raised half a hand or waved a finger in a half-raised hand to indicate interest, and the auctioneer hiked up the bid by Rs. 5/-10/- or 50/-; I couldn’t figure out the logic or system by which the price was increased. Other than the bag of locks, a Samsonite suitcase attracted multiple bids, ending at Rs.2650. And a carved leather ladies handbag.

I was only present while everyday goods (and junk!) got auctioned off, but that place holds antique-ey items too. Some pieces can be purchased as is, including most of the big furniture, chandeliers, sculptures, carpets etc. You can identify them by the price tags stickered on to them. One old chair with a wooden frame and cane mesh sitting and leaning surface, the kind of chair common to my grandparents’ time, was priced at Rs.11000. I’ve seen them being sold online for upwards of Rs.20,000 by companies that refurbish and resell antique furniture. Other exciting pieces are antique-ey bookshelves with the former owner’s book collection included (often dusty encyclopedias). I say antique-ey as opposed to antique, because I was reading online that there is a problem that gets in the way of selling antiques in India. Anything older than 100 years has to be registered with a government department before it can be sold, and most owners, naturally, can’t be bothered with all that. So it is highly possible to come across antiques that are not certifiably antiques, which makes these auctions even more exciting.

Someone, while writing about this, spoke of how addictive the whole experience is, and I agree. The mystery of the items-who were the previous owners? what’s its story?-the mystery of the appeal of older goods and who bids on what, the collection of spectators and buyers, and the rush of the bids and the gavel falling down to seal a deal warrant a second visit, and a third, and a fourth. And then one should stop, before it becomes pathological 😉



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