NEVILLE TULI, chairman of the auction house and archive Osian’s, struck an uncharacteristically tentative note before the auction of film memorabilia at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi in July. “This auction doesn’t make economic sense,” he said to the gathering. “But let’s hope that it goes roughly according to plan and we all are excited to some extent.” Flipping through the catalogue, my neighbour, a dapper, middle-aged man, came to the page which listed a jacket belonging to the late Shammi Kapoor, and a sweater he had worn in Andaz (1971). “Even the stink of these people will sell,” he grunted.
Angira Arya, the auctioneer for the evening, took the stage. The first lot, a re-release print run poster of Mahal (1949), with Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, was estimated at between Rs 12,500 and Rs 20,000. Arya opened bidding with a reserve price of Rs 5,000. The organisers needn’t have worried that people would be hesitant—bids climbed quickly and steadily between bidders in the room and those connected by telephone, before topping off at Rs 19,200 (including the 20 percent buyer’s premium—the auction house’s fee, which is added to the hammer price).
The auction continued smoothly, with almost every lot sold, most within or more than the estimated range. Proceedings grew heated with the sale of Shammi Kapoor’s scarf from Junglee, estimated at between Rs 55,000 and Rs 88,000. Every bid called in the room was shot down by Arya with a pre-bid listed in his book, leading one exasperated man in the front row to say after unsuccessfully raising his paddle several times: “Do you have more bids in the book?” “I may be having more,” said Arya cautiously, before suddenly launching into a monologue, uninterrupted by any actual bids from the room. “65,000? 70,000, still with my bidder. 75,000? 80,000, still with my bidder. 85,000? 90,000 still with me. 95,000? 100,000, still with me. 110,000…” here he parted his hands in a grand gesture of generosity, “my bidder is finally out.” There was barely a second to wonder if the room would bite; it did—paddles went up one after another, ratcheting up the price to Rs 156,000. The “stink”, clearly, was selling.