Kolkata is probably the only metro city in India where many colonial-era bungalows are still intact. Several of them have fallen under the hammer of builders over the years, especially in the last decade or so. Such houses often have interesting memorablia that the owners have collected over decades, and want to sell off. This stash often lands up in the auction houses around the Park Street area. Once upon a time, there were many of these in Kolkata, like Mackenzie Lyall & Co. (set up in the 19th century and known for opium auctions); Dalhousie Exchange, Stainer & Co., and D Albert & Co. Over the years, most have had to shut shop, only a handful of the city's old auction houses remain.
The Russell Exchange, for instance. Located around the middle of iconic Russell Street, it rubs shoulders with decades-old Chinese dry cleaning joints, and pubs and eateries from the 1960s. You could easily miss the place. There are no large signages on the road, and several tree branches hide the store's facade.
Every Sunday, The Russell Exchange conducts auctions that sell off anything from record players, cameras and typewriters to colonial-era gas lamps, marble statues, rare lithographs, and glass decanters. Then there is the quirky stuff that is more like the stuff you find at flea market sales: Old cassettes, roll wire pipes, bundles of old notes no longer in circulation, framed photos and even clothes.
The auction house is run by two brothers, Anwer Saleem and Arshad Salim. They have even had a documentary made on them by a British film-maker, 'The Auction House—A Tale Of Two Brothers'.
The Russell Exchange also conducts auctions for private residences. And they hire out antiques to film sets.
For many regulars, the Sunday visits are like an addiction. Or a hobby. People looking to do up their house, often head here to pick up unique furniture and fittings that they would not get in the home decor stores.
If you are in Kolkata, make sure you factor in a visit. They are open through the week. And perhaps you will end up buying an old postcard for your collection. Or even a chipped European vase from the 50s that looked so quaint, because it was placed on a marble-topped round table, beside a faded black-and-white Polaroid portrait of a family.