Kolkata: Members of the erstwhile zamindar families in and around Kolkata are visiting the city’s antique stores to sell memorabilia that once added value to their colonial-era bungalows. The sales have increased over the years, claim owners of Kolkata’s antique houses.
No one knows the exact reason as to why the families are selling their products, many say it could be because the families are converting their bungalows into five-star hotels.
The current generation does not want huge Italian marble tables or statues, this is a minimalist world, claims Dipanjan Roy, a marketing honcho who lives in Kolkata. “I keep hearing about these colonial-era bungalows falling under the hammer of the builders. Some families save their heritage property and turn it into hotels, the rest just take cash and fly.”
Roy says at a time when brown furniture is just out of favour, and antiques can make a property feel dated and less appealing, especially to the younger ones.
Some builders retain the bungalows and do modifications as per modern needs, others raze the bungalows and build skyscrapers. And once the builders take over, the stash lands up in the antique or auction houses around the Park Street area.
Once there were many antique shops, mostly run by Anglo-Indians, now there are just a few surviving by renting colonial furniture and marble statues to filmmakers who love making historical serials and movies.
You need to walk into an antique store, there are no signages. There is a big one on Park Street, sandwiched between a century-old post office and the swanky Starbucks store. It sells marble statues, dressing tables, glass decanters, record players, cameras and typewriters and gas lamps, even rare lithographs, framed photographs, chipped European vases and study tables.
The owner, a lanky Britisher who speaks fluent Bengali, says he wishes to shift to Goa where the demand for such products is high. “I am surviving because of Tollywood (Bengali film industry based out of Kolkata’s Tollygunge area). There are very few takers for such products,” says Julian Ronald Jones. He says what he has is unique and unavailable in modern home decor stores.
There are artefacts which have sat in the store—non purchased—for over a decade. Jones calls it occupational hazards that come with buying and selling beautiful things.
But then, where are the buyers?
Jones said he has furnished the store accordingly because he loves his products. There is a godown as well, where workers polish old furniture before they are sold. He has a China cabinet topped with carved scrollwork and many grandfather clocks, statues standing like sentries near the door. There are architects who often walk into the store because they know what would fit with the type of buyer who’d be looking at the space. “Sometimes, designers and architects trigger the initial level of interest in a condominium. They can have some modern sensibilities and blend such furniture in their modern homes,” says Ashok Chatterjee, a regular at such stores.
Colonial furniture, claims Jones, can be rented most of the time but there are not too many buyers for such furniture or antique products in Kolkata. In short, it can be harder to sell homes that are furnished with antiques. Construction companies say large pieces in particular can make a property feel smaller than it is, sometimes it even hides desirable features of a modern apartment.
“So it works more for film sets, these huge chandeliers, dining tables that can seat 14 and chairs which look like thrones,” says Dibbyo Chakravarty, a cameraman who works with film units.
Chakravarty says only filmmakers are emotional about furnishings on their sets, rest are not. Worse, most antique furniture has dramatically dropped in value over the past couple of decades. No one is offering twice the original price, the antique shop owners are, actually, begging for offers.
Chakravarty further says only a buyer with a traditional bent might want to buy such furnishings. He says selling antiques in Kolkata is actually the art of deaccessioning. In the 70s, there used to be a strong market for antiques in Kolkata, but not anymore.
Antiques were once part of the city’s fashion element, but then, it has little space because life is becoming increasingly less formal in Kolkata.
And then, many in Kolkata say it helps to keep in mind what kinds of pieces are easier to sell. There are high chances that side tables, study tables, grandfather clocks and compact desks are likely to find homes, not huge antique dining tables, big roll-top desks and slant-front cabinets because people do not eat, read or write the way they used to.
Ashok Banerjee, a retired state government engineer, says once antiques gave many homes in Kolkata both richness and comfort. Not anymore. Many have emptied their traditionally furnished bungalows, moved into expansive flats. Some cherry-pick pieces for their homes. “There are ways you need to deal with antiques which look good if they are kept in a white space. Monumental pieces need a lot of breathing space. In the modern age, one must keep antiques to less than 20-25 percent of the furniture,” says Banerjee.
So what is the way out for antiques? Jones says whenever he is not dealing with precious antiques, he elevates the product—before sale—with a fresh coat of paint. “I normally do not change the leather of antique furniture but there are times I have changed some leather and paint and the furniture looks magnificent,” says Jones.
“Very few understand the importance of individualistic, pre-owned items,” says Bilal Ahmed, who has worked in many antique stores. Ahmed says buying vintage lends itself particularly well to stores one can actually visit. “Across the world, vintage shopping is going all online but the trend has not caught up in Bengal, maybe it is working in Goa and Kerala.”
Inside his expansive store, Jones sits on his chair, surrounded by his thoughtful collection of vintage products. He hopes to find people who will resurrect some of his oversized products. Jones says his store was once part of a destination in Kolkata. He feels the antique market in the city is still not a saturated one, it is a lonely business. And it is about to get lonelier. “You must have the right eye to select the right thing.”
That is the key for any antique store. You need to spend long hours like a vintage-obsessed person and then, almost suddenly, pick up a product like a true vintage hound.
It is dark in Kolkata, lights have been switched on Park Street, the city’s only boulevard. Jones, who spends just a few hours in his store every day and leaves around lunchtime, knows he has to wrestle with dwindling revenues driven by competition from online retailers. And then, he has to face changing consumer preferences.
Once he shifts to Goa, his huge store—one of the last holdouts against 21st-century market forces—will signal the end of his small but devoted community of antique-lovers: set designers, filmmakers, poets, art history students, interior designers and museum curators who would routinely come to sip tea, exchange notes on colonial products and buy a few.