Variety

The curio case of Murray & Co

N Ramakrishnan Chennai | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 18, 2016

Hemant Srivatsa (left), Partner, Murray & Co - Photo : Bijoy Ghosh   -  BusinessLine

Once, Twice, Thrice and ...Gone! A public auction in progress at Murray & Co in Chennai. - Photo: Bijoy Ghosh   -  BusinessLine

The auction house has been drawing crowds for nearly ninety years now



It is a small gathering. Most have already taken their positions on the many chairs, benches and sofas in the hall. Some are having a last-minute look at the objects they would like to bid for. Most of them are collectors of curios, old furniture and antique metal pieces, while some have come bargain hunting, hoping to get a household item at a throwaway price.

On the dot at 10.30 on Sunday morning, Hemant Srivatsa calls the auction to order and quickly starts the process. As a Partner at Murray & Co — one of the oldest auctioneers in the country and a household name in Chennai — Srivatsa mentions the lot number and the object to be auctioned, even as employees hold them up for display.

Sold!

He starts off at the base price, looks around the hall. A middle-aged gentleman puts up his hand and the bid goes up by fifty rupees, another nods and the bid goes up yet again…till finally Srivatsa, in a clear voice, says “Once, Twice and”, with an emphasis on the “Thrice”, declares “Gone”. The object has been sold.

A rosewood walking stick is eighth on the list. Srivatsa opens the bid at ₹200 and in no time, it is gone for ₹350. A brass table top mirror, which Srivatsa says is a famed Aranmula make, goes for ₹1,900 in no time. A brass ship model fetches ₹6,800.

The buyer, 50-year-old Syed Zahoor Ahmed, says he first attended the auction when he was eight, accompanying his father.

“It’s like a hobby for me,” he says, with obvious satisfaction over his purchase. That ship model, he says, is an exclusive piece.

“You won’t get it anywhere else,” he adds.

How it all began

Murray & Co, Srivatsa recollects, began business in 1927 at a small office near the Madras High Court, under advice from the then Chief Justice of the Court, Lord Murray Coutts-Tratter. In those days, the court auctioned a lot of property and it wanted someone reliable to do the job. Thus came into being Murray & Co: the name, an obvious tribute to the Chief Justice. Set up by S Vedantham as a partnership firm, it has remained one all these years, save a few years in the 1950s and 1960s.

Murray & Co not only carried out auctions for the court, but also carried out the “bungalow sale” – taking an inventory of all the items in a bungalow being vacated by a Britisher and auctioning them, handing over the proceeds to the trustee in charge of the property. Vedantham’s brother Rajam is credited with making Murray & Co what it is today, a household name in Chennai. It is still the leading auction house in the country, with a presence in all the three segments – industrial, real estate and the public auction. The industrial auction still is the bread and butter of the business, contributing as much as three-fourths of its revenues, according to Srivatsa. He and Sujan Gangadharan are now the partners of the firm.

According to Srivatsa, the public auction of furniture, household items and antiques would have started in 1930 – he still has a copy of the lease deed – when the auctioneers were located on Mount Road (as the arterial Anna Salai was then known) just behind the landmark LIC building. Srivatsa says the building, which has now been pulled down, was once a Masonic Lodge. The auction was carried out there till 2013, when Murray moved to Mandaveli and subsequently to its present location in an unfinished building in what was once the Gemini studio.

How does he value the furniture and other antiques that come up for auction? There are two aspects to them, he says. One is the intrinsic value, which is identifying what it is made of. This makes up a small component of the value of the piece. The larger component is the rarity of the piece — any name tags or markings only add to the value. “By and large it is experience and history,” he adds. Murray earns a commission on the selling price, a flat 12 per cent in the public auctions.

Over the years

What are the changes he has seen in these nearly 25 years that he has been in the business? Quite a few, he says. Of late, he is seeing a lot more youngsters – in their 20s and 30s – coming for the public auction, which is the glamorous side of their business. While there are quite a few takers for the classical rosewood or teakwood pieces, many more are looking for flashy marking on the furniture.

Over the years, the industrial auction has also changed. Companies are now loath to hold a public auction on their premises and prefer to invite sealed tenders to dispose of unwanted plant and machinery. Murray continues to do a lot of that, thanks to the decades of relationship it has built with companies.

In this Internet age, Srivatsa says, those who would have otherwise sent items directly to Murray, now do a price discovery on some of the websites before coming to the auction house. “There is always clientele for us and people looking for exclusive goods,” he says. Murray too is in the process of getting its online platform, Srivatsa adds.

Srivatsa, who joined the business in 1992 after earning an engineering degree and an MBA, says he can’t even think of doing anything else. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else in my life,” he says and adds, “the charm of the business is you don’t know what comes into your office,” referring to the popular TV serial Pawn Stars.

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Published on October 18, 2016
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