Murray and Co, Madras’ first Indian-owned auction house, moves with the times; seeks to set up online platform

It’s 10.25 am on a sultry Sunday morning. Gemini Circle, the busiest junction in Chennai, wears a deserted look. Overlooking the junction is Gemini Towers — a tall, decaying landmark of Old Madras. In its ground-floor warehouse, more than 150 bidders are in a last-minute rush to find a good seat. The bidding begins in five minutes, and there are 232 lots up for auction.

 Murray and Co, Madras first Indian-owned auction house, moves with the times; seeks to set up online platform

All photographs by Pranav Kumaraswamy

With no breaks for tea, it’s going to be a long morning, and finding a comfortable seat is of utmost importance. Interestingly, the diwans, barcaloungers and sofas the bidders sit on are also for sale. In fact, except for the podium, the two chairs on it, and two display cupboards, everything in the room is up for bidding. A man in a light blue shirt and neatly-ironed pants takes his seat on the podium, sips from a glass of water, clears his throat, and begins a familiar chant. The auction is underway.

The first lot is ‘Two Buddha Table Pieces’. A staff member stands in front of the podium, holding up the item for the crowd to see. Bidding begins at Rs 300 and moves at an uncharacteristically slow pace. The second lot is ‘A Clown & A Doll Table Piece’. Bidding starts again at Rs 300, and in less than 60 seconds, builds up into a ringtone-worthy crescendo to Rs 1400. Going once. Going twice. Sold. The pace is set. Over the next hour, 50 more items are sold, most at double their starting bid.

Murray and Co started off in 1927 in a small office on Thambu Chetty Street opposite the Madras High Court. In 1925, Dowden and Company, the last of the British-owned auction houses in Madras, had shut shop. The Madras High Court needed a place to auction land and other property from its legal proceedings. The then Chief Justice Sir Murray Coutts-Trotter sent out the word. An enterprising Agriculture graduate responded to the call. His name was Vedantam. The deal was made. Madras had its first Indian-owned auction house. In honour of the Chief Justice, it was named Murray and Co.

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Within a year, Rajam, a chartered accountant working in Delhi, moved to Madras to join his brother in business. “Rajam had only two passions in life – literature and Murray’s. He started his day at 6.30 in the morning and would only stop for a short siesta at 2 pm. He understood the value of networking and was always on the phone. He had over 50 telephone numbers stored in his memory. Luckily, those were the days of 4-digit phone numbers,” says Hemant Srivatsa, a partner at Murray and Co.

Srivatsa and his team work out of the second floor of a sepia-tinted building on VM Street in Mylapore. His other partner is his brother-in-law, Sujan Gangadhar. The floors of the office are covered in classic mosaic tiles. On the wall in the reception is a grandfather clock: Its hands are stuck at 1.30 – seemingly a metaphor which is a testament to its owner – because no matter how heated the bidding gets, there is an undeniable timelessness to the process. In the office rooms, the six landline telephones are all engaged with employees answering a steady stream of questions from prospective sellers, settling queries about pending payments and other miscellaneous calls. “The staff is not allowed to buy anything that comes up for auction. That includes me. And they can sell only with prior permission,” says Srivatsa.

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Hemant Srivatsa, at his office in Mylapore

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In school and college, Hemant was quite the introvert. “You give me a good book, and I will sit quietly in a corner doing my own thing. I didn’t like dealing with people much,” he says. After completing his engineering and MBA, Hemant expressed an interest in joining the firm. His father was initially against it – he expected his son to get a proper job to justify the string of qualifications suffixing his name. Eventually, he relented.

Hemant’s family isn’t related to either of the founders. But his grandfather was best friends with Rajam. “Rajam thatha would finish the Sunday auction and drive down to Tirupati just to meet my grandpa. On one of his visits, he asked about my father. Appa was finishing his law course and had just passed the bar. Rajam thatha asked him to resign from the bar office and join Murray’s immediately. Overnight, we were part of the Murray’s family,” says Hemant. He points to a rosewood chair in his office and adds, “By the way, that’s where Rajam thatha took his afternoon naps.”

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Hemant has many memories from his 27 years of auctioning. “Sometime in 1992, an old man brought a huge wooden cupboard to our office. He said that he had paid Rs 50 for the rickshaw and asked if we could sell the cupboard for at least that much. I assured him that we could definitely do better. The next Sunday, it was sold for Rs 8,000. It was a surprise to us as well, for we expected it to fetch around Rs 3,000. When the old man got his payment, he came running to us and said, ‘Hey, I think you paid me extra by mistake.’ I remember this incident because these days, I meet a lot of nouveau riche people who think their items are worth a lot just because they have been in their families for 20-30 years,” says Hemant. Apart from the marathon Sunday auctions (typically lasting four to five hours), Murray’s also conducts special auctions three to four times a year, where they sell the more expensive curios, furniture and paintings.

In its early days, Murray’s did a lot of work for the Madras High Court. Today, they are called to conduct property and industrial auctions all over South India. The plot on Greams Road where Apollo Hospital now stands was purchased at a Murray’s auction. Ramnath Goenka bought Express Estates from Madras Club House via an auction conducted by Murray’s. “In fact, Ramnath Goenka was a regular at our Sunday auctions. Once the Founder Secretary of Vidyamandir School Subbaraya Ayyar (incidentally Sujan Gangadhar’s great-grandfather) had come to the auction. He was a portly man and had snuggled into a small chair. When the chair came up for bidding, Rajam said, ‘We’re selling that child’s chair without its contents.’ The whole crowd burst into laughter as Ayyar turned red with embarrassment. The next day, Subbaraya had a surprise package delivered home with a note attached. ‘I thought you looked very comfortable in the chair.’ It was signed Ramnath Goenka.”

Even today, Murrays has its regulars. Architect Arcot Karthik has not missed a single auction in the last six years. “Sometimes I buy items and just store them in my warehouse. I don’t know what I will do with them, but I can’t help bidding on that beautiful teak and art-nouveau furniture,” he says. Some of the bidders are scrap dealers who refurbish the products for resale. But most buy for personal use – where else can they get vintage typewriters and rosewood swings at such prices?

Murray’s prides itself for its clockwork precision. The process begins with the seller expressing interest via email, phone or Facebook messenger. The seller then brings in the item to their warehouse, or they arrange for it to be transported (at a cost). The inward goods receipt is generated, the product price is estimated and they decide what auction it should go to. Items for the special auction are vetted separately by one of the partners. On Tuesday, the items are put for internal display. Then begins the system cataloging. On Wednesday and Thursday, they shuffle around with the display. The catalog is finally posted on the website by Thursday evening. Friday is their weekly off. On Saturday, the auction opens for public viewing. Around 50 percent of the bidders walk in for inspection. On Sunday at 10.30 am, the auction begins.

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As a boy, Hemant remembers his father bringing home a huge pile of folders after every Sunday auction. He would then sit down to calculate the account settlement on each item. “Imagine making more than 400 separate payments every month, that too without technology. But that’s our specialty. We make all settlements within 10 days. And now with credit and debit cards, it takes much less time,” he says. “We are also looking to set up an online auction: a marriage of OLX and eBay.”

Murray’s has been conducting the Sunday auction every week since 1930, first in the Old Masonic Lodge on Mount Road (which now houses the LIC building), then briefly in Mandaveli and now in Gemini Towers. “Only twice have we cancelled the auction, once because of the fire in the LIC building and another time because of the Chennai floods.” For most of Madras, Murray’s is an institution. “When I first started conducting auctions in 92-93, I noticed these two elderly men who would always take seats on both ends of the first row. They would laugh their heads off at all the jokes, but never once make a bid. Then at noon, they would both get up and leave,” says Hemant. “I found it amusing at first but later grew annoyed. One Sunday, I ran out after them and asked, ‘I’ve been noticing both of you. You don’t sit together but always leave at the same time. Are you friends?’ One of the gentlemen smiled and said that they didn’t know each other. He was old and this was just an avenue for entertainment. The other gentleman looked at me in all seriousness and replied, ‘Young man, on Sundays Christians go to church.’”

These words best sum up the Murray’s experience. Ask the regulars and they will most likely agree that bidding at the auction is their form of prayer.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2019 10:15:49 IST

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