August , 2019
The auction house at Russell Street
17:10 pm

Aritra Mitra

One is reminded of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop as one steps into Russel Exchange, a 79-year-old auction house at Russell Street in Kolkata. Everything – clothes, furniture, sculptures, chandeliers, crockeries – is saleable in Russel Exchange. A garment auction is held here every Thursday and a general auction is held every Sunday. Arshad Salim, who has inherited the family business told BE, “Earlier there was a great fascination for imported goods but now imported goods are widely available. So, their demand has fallen.”

In many ways, the auction house offers an overview of the city’s legacy. Its stock of period furniture, tables, sofa sets, record players, glass decanters, wooden tea trolleys, patterned mosquito nets, steel trunks, brass paan boxes and cut-glass salad bowls is subtly indicative of the taste and trend of a city in transition. According to Salim, “The quality of goods has changed over the years. Earlier, the zamindars and the elite used to visit the auction house.” Nowadays, everybody does. Even if one is not buying anything, one can step into the place for the experience. The auction house which came into existence in 1940 is popular among foreign tourists.

Walk in and there is a huge table where the items to be auctioned are kept and at the very end, sits the auctioneer with a list and a hammer. On both sides, people gather to have a close look at the item before bidding for it. A lot of these items are regular household items, brought in by people looking to earn a quick buck.

The destruction of old bungalows and properties in Kolkata directly impacts the exchange stock. While shopping malls and high-rises come up where these vintage properties stood, the possessions of the demolished houses are put up for auction. The house charges a 20% commission on the sale price of the items.

Salim expressed his discontentment regarding the tax policy of the government and stated, “Most of the goods, which are auctioned here are second-hand. So, the goods have already been taxed at source. So, there is no reason to charge a VAT or GST on these auctioned items.” He is also contemplating on introducing e-auctions.

Auctioneering depends largely on the presentation. People walk into the shop and the antique attractions of the place lure them to participate in the auction. When asked about the future of the auction house, Salim said, “That is a million dollar question. When the British left, we thought that the auction houses will be closed down. But people patronised us and we survived. In future, we may or may not survive. Everything depends on the future generations and their evolving preferences.”


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