Value addition

rashmi pratap | Updated on November 28, 2014

Lost and found: An antique oil can from Phantom Hands -- GRN Somashekhar   -  BL

A vintage table fan with two sets of brass blades. -- GRN Somashekhar   -  BL

Classic charm: Deepak Srinath of Phantom Hands strikes a pose with a life-sized wooden statue in north Karnataka’s Kinhala style. -- GRN Somashekhar   -  BL

Old haunts: Phillips Antiques at the Indian Mercantile Mansion in Colaba, Mumbai -- Paul Noronha   -  PAUL NORONHA

The business of antiques is thriving in India. Be it a traditional brick-and-mortar model or an e-commerce site, the patina of success is now clearly discernible

Near the Wellington Fountain Circle (Regal Circle) in south Mumbai’s Colaba stands a grand Gothic building marked by pointed arches, turrets and black stone façades. Built sometime in the mid-19th century, the Waterloo Mansion, now called the Indian Mercantile Mansion, is one of the most photographed architectural marvels of the city, featured even in postcards of the early 20th century. And it is under its hallowed roof that one of India’s oldest antiques shops, Phillips Antiques, found a befitting address.

Originally set up by a British family in 1860, the shop was bought as a ‘going concern’ by the great grandfather of Farooq Issa. Today, it houses pieces of history in the form of Oriental and European porcelain and pottery, brass toys, Victorian coloured glass, Tanjore glass paintings, sea charts, historical maps and town plans, besides a range of colonial and ethnic furniture.

The erstwhile Maharajas and royal families were the biggest patrons of antiques in the 1950s. But by the late ’70s — after the abolition of privy purses in 1971 — they had become sellers, giving a new lease of life to the business of antiques in the country. While no industry statistics are available due to the unorganised nature of the business, antiques worth billions of dollars are sold every year in the domestic and exports markets. And the business is increasing.

“The domestic market is growing tremendously. More people are now aware (of their value), and the emerging middle-class is spending a lot on buying vintage artefacts for their homes,” says Sunny L Malayil, who co-owns Crafters Antiques in Kochi’s Jew Town with brother Johny.

The duo joined the trade nearly a quarter-century ago, after their family business of spices began to slow down. When they started, 95 per cent of their sales came from exports. “But today, domestic demand alone is 80 per cent,” says Malayil.

The first item that the brothers sold was an 80-year-old cash box, which was bought from a tharavadu — a traditional family house in Kerala. These homes were grand, with one or more courtyards, intricately carved furniture and decorative articles.

With the decline in the joint-family system, these belongings found their way to the market, and were bought regularly by antiques dealers. “Kerala has a rich craft tradition, especially wooden craft, which is centuries old.

Families own items like wooden heads of cows and horses, statues and other knick-knacks. A lot of that has come to the stores,” says Deepak Srinath, founder of Phantom Hands, India’s first antiques and vintage collectibles e-commerce venture.

In Kochi, for instance, Jew Town, which lies between the Mattancherry Palace and the Paradesi Synagogue, is a hub of antiques sellers.

When local Jew settlers, whose history dates back to 700BC, began to move back to Israel in the 20th century, their old household items, including furniture and vessels, flooded Jew Town with antiques. Not surprisingly, row upon row of shops here sell antiques alone — from furniture and crockery to paintings and silver ornaments. All of which eventually find their way to dealers and collectors across India and abroad.

Open source networks

Issa of Phillips Antiques and Srinath of Phantom Hands travel to Kochi and other hubs like Jodhpur, Pondicherry and Chettinad in search of ‘hidden gems’. The Chettiars, for instance, had trade relations with other countries.

From their travels, they brought back enamelware from Sweden, lacquer boxes and wooden chests from Burma, besides other gems, artefacts and statues. “You find an international flavour of antiques in Chettinad,” says Srinath.

Issa says he sources antiques from collectors, auctions, estates, royal families and even old homes in the countryside. Among the main draws at his upmarket Colaba store, which can well be called a museum, is an exquisite doll’s house in silver, complete with silver chairs, a dining table, sofas and beds, which once belonged to a princess. A queen’s palanquin procured from Bengal was also a major attraction, until it was acquired by a family in Pondicherry with a house large enough to give it pride of place.

Srinath, however, stays away from such privately owned legacies. “People we deal with are all first-generation collectors. We don’t want to get into any family disputes at all.” He sources his vintage artefacts from collectors and other antiques dealers with whom he has built a rapport over the years. While Phantom Hands was only launched in 2013, Srinath and his wife Aparna Rao have been decorating their home with such collectibles over a period of time.

“Once we launched the site, collectors started approaching us to sell their things. With time, either the tastes of collectors change, or they have space or cash constraints, compelling them to dispense with the artefacts,” says Srinath, formerly an investment banker with Allegro.

He cautions, however, that entering the business of antiques is not without its perils. “It is not something someone can get into and start sourcing immediately.

Most antiques dealers are third- or fourth-generation operators, and their relationships with suppliers go back 100 or more years. Their supply chains are well-entrenched,” he says.

A fourth-generation antiques dealer, Issa, for instance, depends heavily on the business relationships his forefathers built over 100 years. Moreover, dealers and collectors have always worked within a tight, well-networked community that is hard to breach for a new entrant.

Antiques — loosely defined as any item over 100 years old, of historic, artistic, cultural or religious significance — are becoming rarer by the day and cannot be legally exported.

They have to be registered with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Articles that are 30 to 100 years old are classified as vintage, and these are the ones in demand now.

“Things have changed. Buyers don’t look only at the age of an artefact now. It is more about design and aesthetics. Most of the things sold today are vintage,” says Issa. Almost 90 per cent of the Phantom Hands inventory is also vintage — belonging to the early 20th century.

Keeping the faith

Rehan Khan, the chief executive of a pharmaceutical multinational, who is also an angel investor in Phantom Hands, began by collecting vintage carpets and rugs almost two decades ago, when he was working across the US, Germany and Sweden, among other countries. He moved to India six years ago. “Most of the good carpets have long left the country. I now focus on beautiful vintage items across genres — furniture, contemporary art and items of religious and historic significance.”

Khan, like most collectors, is choosy the about people he sources his items from in a marketplace flooded with fakes and knock-offs. “There is a market but no way to cater to it in an ethical way. When a lot of people are making copies (of originals), how do you do it in a trustworthy way? Can you tell the history and provenance of an item? A buyer needs to know that.”

And that is exactly why Khan agreed to fund Phantom Hands, which works with experts to ensure that each and every product it sells online is bona fide. Srinath says, “We always work with dealers who are trustworthy and come with good credentials.”

Srinath has taken it a step further by roping in as team members antiques dealers, subject experts as well as academicians who can judge if an object is kosher. Since antiques belong to several categories, one person cannot be an authority on everything from vintage watches and coins to fans and bicycles. “When we are not sure, we write to relevant experts all over the world to get their validation,” says Srinath.

A third of his company’s sales now comes from export markets in the US, Europe and Australia.

While objects range from ₹12,000 to a few lakhs at Phantom Hands, a lithograph of a British soldier, for instance, can be bought for ₹3,500 at Phillips. “It is a misconception that antiques cost lakhs of rupees. Many items can be bought for a few thousand,” says Issa. And that is precisely why young professionals are making a beeline for vintage artefacts.

“They are the emerging category of clientele — professionals, who are doing well, are mostly in their early-to-mid-30s and setting up their first home. While 80 per cent of the furniture they buy will be from stores, they do want to have one or two pieces that will stand out,” says Srinath.

They are, as Issa says, taking baby steps in the vast world of antiques: “Over the years, as they become more affluent, they will perhaps start investing in unique objects.” Quite like the high net-worth individuals who invest in antiques today, apart from serious collectors, who tend to focus on one or two categories such as coins or watches or furniture of a particular style.

Khan, meanwhile, remains bullish about the future of antiques in India. He cites the example of China, where individuals are buying back Chinese antiques from all over the world as their purchasing power increases. “Most countries become more focused and proud of their history with an increase in affluence. In 20 years, we will see this happening in India as well,” says Khan, who collects a noodle-maker from Assam with as much fervour as a sandalwood walking stick from Mysore or intricately carved legs of a charpoy from Gujarat. “Articles I collect today are vintage, but two decades from now, they will be antiques.”

For collectors like Khan, this is not merely a business, or an investment that can give quick returns like mutual funds: “It is a way of preserving our history, culture and anthropology.”

And for Issa — whose children are keen on joining the business as well — it is a way of life.

Published on November 07, 2014

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