Cityscape Prince Frederick goes sofa hunting at Murray and Co, and comes back with an account of how the auction house works

Monday and Tuesday — the goods trickle in. Wednesday — they are assigned numbers. Thursday — with short descriptions, they go into print. Friday — day off for the staff. Saturday — potential buyers walk in and inspect the goods. Sunday — the week-long action culminates in a ‘hand-raising’ climax.

This is a typical week at Murray & Co, the 81-year-old auction house that is still going strong. I delay my visit until Saturday as I don’t want to be in the way of tables twice the size of Denmark being moved around.

At the entrance of the auction house, I am handed a thin pamphlet that sums up the goods going under the hammer. As I want to replace my sofa set, my eyes are drawn to the furniture. And, I am slightly daunted by the profusion of choice.

Murray, located behind the multi-storied Life Insurance Corporation office on Mount Road, is often associated with quality furniture on the cheap. Given people’s expectations, Murray devotes great attention to its furniture sale. It even uses a customised software — Furniture Ver. 3

Murray has a reputation for providing anything that can’t be bought off a showroom. Hooked on rosewood, Arun has come looking for anything made of it. He is not able to take his eyes off an old, but well preserved rosewood bureau, which he will bid for tomorrow. His budget is Rs. 7,000. “Making such a rosewood bureau today will cost Rs. 25,000,” is how he defends his decision.

Besides furniture, the auction house offers a lot. There are mobiles, watches, table fans, exercise equipment, computers, and what have you! People leave at Murray pretty much anything they want to get rid of. But only items of decent or top quality are accepted.

A Nokia 6681 in hand, L. Srinivasan materialises from between two buyers. Single-mindedly, the senior manager is trying to activate a special feature in the mobile. Mohan, who works for a BPO, has taken to this 6681, and wants to make sure it is worth putting up his hand for it tomorrow. After futile efforts to crack the feature, Srinivasan resignedly calls the owner.

As many household items are operated with electricity, the auction house has a generous supply of plug points. It is an orgy of sounds — the loud blare of a mixer and the whir of a table fan and a front-loading washing machine. Potential buyers are making the most of this opportunity, as there is no second chance. Anyone who discovers that he has successfully bid for a defective item has to simply grin and bear it.

As the auctioneers get a 12 per cent commission on a sale, they pay attention to how the items are presented. A lot of thought goes into how ‘lots’ are chosen. Every Sunday, a ‘lot’ consisting 250 items will be up for bidding. The rest will be held back for another Sunday.

Sujan Gangadhar, one of the top names at Murray, says identical items are not put in the same lot. When convinced an item will fetch a higher price at a special auction, they ask the seller to wait. As Murray does not charge for storage, such advice is seldom rejected.

As Srinivasan leads me to a room that houses these special items, I am transported back in time. An Elmwood dining table, a roll top table and an assortment of other antique furniturehave been earmarked for a curio sale, held once in two or three months. Wide publicity precedes this special auction.

On Sunday, I turn up for the auction a few minutes after it starts. I had assumed that getting a seat in a 5000 sq.ft. room overrun with sofas and chairs should not be an issue. I could not have been more wrong. People have parked themselves on the tables too! The helpful, friendly supervisor Narayanan offers to get a chair placed near the auctioneer’s perch. Raising my hand, I point to a corner where I could stand. “Put down your hand!” he tells me sharply, “The auctioneer might think you have made a bid!”

Sujan, who conducts the auction, is seated at an elevated chair-table unit planted in the centre of the hall, so that he does not miss any hand that goes up. Narayanan keeps requesting people to sit down and not block Sujan’s view. Sometimes, there is an edge to his tone. As 250 items have to be disposed of before lunch, you can excuse him for it. Details of every sale are fed into the computer by supervisor Sundar. Whoever makes the highest bid for an item has to pay 25 per cent of the amount on the spot. On Monday or Tuesday, it will be delivered home.

At the auction house, I meet all sorts of people. Those who keep coming back in the hope of getting what they want for a low price; sellers who come to see the response to their items; those who are addicted to bidding and put in an appearance every Sunday; and occasional visitors like me to who are simply thrilled to watch an auction.