Not everything up for auction last Sunday could be described as collectors' items. Workaday odds and ends have their space and clientele too. Aftab Alam bought a VIP suitcase for Rs 320. His friend, K.P. Singh, got a commode seat cover and two bicycle tyres for Rs 55, while Lalit Vaswani was all smiles after acquiring a corner settee for just Rs 600. But Vaswani has no plans of placing the settee in his living room, just as Alam's piece of luggage is not for his personal use. They're part of around 100 people who flock to Calcutta's auction houses to bid for everything from broken telephones to four-poster mahogany beds. They're an eclectic mix of scrap dealers, small-time mechanics, furniture dealers, curio-hunters and antique collectors of diverse classes, ages and backgrounds. Every Sunday morning, they hurry to the city's three remaining auction houses on Russell Street—there were eight till a few years ago—to bid for articles they had already inspected the previous day.
Calcutta is the only city in India that holds such weekly auctions. Ironically, this business witnessed its boom when Calcutta was on the decline, and is now facing a lull since 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 wind up operations here and leave during the turbulent years in the late 1960s and early '70s. We used to sell very good stuff, especially furniture," Arshad Salim, the owner of Russell Exchange, told Outlook. According to Salim, auction houses started coming up in the early twentieth century to sell furniture and other household effects of departing British merchants and officials. Today, the three auction houses offer everything from Victorian statues, colonial furniture, curios, crockery and books to old laptops, electrical fittings and gadgets. The Russell Exchange even auctions old clothes.