Asha Sridhar and Anusha Parthasarathy visit Chennai's oldest existing auction house

Murray and Co., where different eras juxtapose, it is hard to imagine order. The sun seeps in through stained glass to illuminate old microwaves, sewing machines, computer keyboards and dismantled swings. Every Sunday, over the last eight decades, at least 250 ageing articles resting in this auction house find new homes.

In 1927, S. Vedantam, an agriculture graduate, began a small auction house on Thambu Chetty Street to cash in on the closure of the bigger ones. “We are told that Dowden & Co, a fairy big auctioning company, had shut down to move back to England. Around that time, our administrative office was started,” says Hemant Srivatsava, partner, Murray and Co.

With permission from Sir Victor Murray Coutstrotter, a judge of the Madras High Court, the firm was named Murray and Co. “The judge was the one who gave S. Vedantam the idea of starting the auction house,” says Sujan Gangadhar S, another partner. “We were probably the only non-legal firm to be appointed commissioners on behalf of the High Court of Madras.” They also became the Receiver for Madras Presidency, due to which business rapidly expanded.

Vedantam, along with his brother S. Rajam, decided to open another branch to auction furniture and other household items. For this, they rented out the Kushaldas Estate on Mount Road, where they still continue to function. “This happened around 1929, when the business ran in partnership between the two brothers. For a while, Murray and Co. functioned as a family business until my father K.C. Srivatsava joined the company as a lawyer in 1956 and became a partner too. Unfortunately, no one from the Vedantam family is a part of the business at present,” says Hemant.

From the 1920s until the 1970s, Murray and Co. was a household name in Madras with many legendary auctions to their credit. They were the ones who sold HM Hospital to Express Estates and the property on Greams Road to Apollo Hospitals. From 1964 onwards, they have also been the official auctioneers for the Ministry of Defence.

“We began auctioning curios and furniture from 1929 onwards,” says Hemant. Adds Sujan, “We also conduct auctions for Southern Railways and Customs. First, we started with auctioning equipment, machinery and large volumes of scrap and articles seized by the Customs. By the 1970s, we began covering almost the entire gamut of disposal. But one thing has not changed: we have not gone beyond south India.”

When the British left India, their bungalows along with the furnishings also came to Murrays to auction. “In the 1920s, a lot of property auctions come to us from the court and they began once the British had started moving out of India. These auctions were conducted at the site of the property.”

After business moved to Mount Road, the Sunday auction was introduced. There have been only a few instances when the auction didn't happen: for example, when the Cooum was flooded in the 1940s, and when there was a fire in the LIC building. “In the 1980s too, when Madras was flooded, we missed our Sunday auction. There have been a couple of other instances after I joined in 1992, when the auction wasn't held due to security reasons,” says Hemant.

The basic principle of auctioning is 'Caveat Emptor' or ‘Buyers Beware', and Murray and Co still practises it. But competition has never been a problem. “We do not use a microphone while auctioning even now,” says Sujan, while Hemant adds, “There have always been a few auction houses in the city but no one who has worked in various fields like property, household goods, furniture for a long time.”

Auctions at Murray and Co. continue to attract an eclectic mix of people. “It's intriguing to see the different kind of people who turn up at auctions. In the old days, when my father conducted them, it was normal to see judges and industrialists coming there. Even now you get to meet every one from top industrialists, lawyers, educationists, doctors to small traders,” says Hemant.