India's oldest auction house fights for survival

Anwar Saleem, one of the owners of The Russell Exchange. Anwar Saleem wants to restore the past glory of The Russell Exchange

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Auctioning was once a thriving business in India's eastern city of Calcutta. With changing times most of the auction houses have gone out of business. Documentary filmmaker Ed Owles visits one of India's oldest surviving auction houses - the Russell Exchange.

In the middle of the 20th century, Calcutta's many auction houses were the playgrounds of India's rich and famous, thronged with actors, businessmen and ambassadors.

But then the capital shifted to Delhi, wealth left the city and the economy of West Bengal stagnated. Almost all of the original auctioneers went out of business… all except one, the Russell Exchange.

Run by the same family since they bought it from the British in 1940, it is India's oldest surviving auction house and sits in a prime location just off Calcutta's renowned Park Street.

In its heyday, it was on a par with global institutions like Sotheby's, with customers travelling from Mumbai, Delhi and beyond to buy and sell the finest in antique furniture.

These days, however, it boasts a more eclectic spectrum of lots, ranging from battered old motorbike helmets to crystal chandeliers, and cracked Miley Cyrus CDs to exquisitely crafted Burma teak beds.

In the olden days, the items hailed almost exclusively from the homes of foreign ambassadors and the Bengali aristocracy. Now, they are just as likely to originate from the backroom cabinets of housewives struggling to get by.

Reliving a dream

Household items on display in The Russell Exchange. The Russell Exchange auctions anything from household items to old motorbikes

The bidding is overseen by two charismatic brothers who grew up playing on the dusty floors beneath the auctioneer's chair before inheriting the business when their father died.

They have led very different lives - the eldest, Anwer Saleem, recently returned to Calcutta after a lifetime working abroad, aiming to take the Russell Exchange back to the glory days of his childhood.

Up against predatory land developers, internet retailers and the new giants of the "high street", Mr Saleem is convinced his business skills, honed over decades doing everything from investment banking to running curry houses on the Costa del Sol, can make a difference.

In contrast, younger brother Arshad Salim is a dyed-in-the-wool Calcuttan. He has been auctioning in the Exchange since the age of 18 (at the time he was the youngest auctioneer in India) and asserts that he can sell anything from "a pin to an aeroplane".

He views the closure of Calcutta's other auction houses - once there were more than 20 - as a sign of the city's terminal decline and doubts that another generation will be around to take over the running of the Exchange.

Innovative ways

A man inspecting an auction item at night. Connoisseurs of antique still frequent India's last surviving auction house

To try to keep the Russell Exchange in the black, the brothers are turning to increasingly innovative solutions.

They have given over a portion of the building to the restoration and fixed price sale of antiques. More unusually, they hosted a red carpet catwalk show for feted local fashion designers Dev r' Nil, when top national models strutted their stuff down aisles flanked by down-at-heel cupboards and creaking armchairs.

Plans are also in the offing to launch a regular music night at the venue for up-and-coming talent.

The contrast between the snatches of glamour at events such at these and the desperate inertia of a quiet weekday afternoon is stark.

But the Russell Exchange will always be first and foremost an auction house, especially for the dozen or so staff who work there, many of whom are second or third generation employees.

The objects they oversee coming in and out of the auction house represent a kaleidoscopic mirror on the city outside its doors.

Amongst the customers are widows selling their husband's golf clubs, retired fashion designers flogging female figurines and 21st century rag-and-bone men selling homemade lampshades.

Forgotten history

The buyers are a similarly diverse bunch - there are collectors of brass, watches and toy cars, middlemen dealers looking for a bargain to sell, and eccentric old-timers such as octogenarian KK Dutta, who has bought over 80 beds and 20 dining tables for his faded family palace.

Almost every transaction represents a forgotten history, the promise of feeding a hungry mouth, or a new adventure.

In many ways the auction house mirrors the past, present and future of Calcutta: a city once famed for its cultural and artistic richness, now searching for its true identity amidst the chaotic collision of old and new.

Whether the brothers' initiatives to keep the business open will be successful - ensuring this ongoing collision of people, objects and stories - remains to be seen. In fact, perhaps its only course of survival resides in embracing its own anachronisms.

It is precisely because it stands still whilst all about is changing, the epitome of faded grandeur, that it has started to attract attention from the very contemporary worlds of fashion, music and beyond.

Ed Owles is a London-based documentary filmmaker who is currently making a film about The Russell Exchange, due to be released later this year.

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