How lost art masterpiece was found in Sheffield loo

Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises on Scotland Street

Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises on Scotland Street

0
Have your say

A Sheffield auctioneer who discovered painting worth £160,000 talks to Colin Drury ahead of a new venture...

Michael Dowse has come across some unusual finds during his career as an auctioneer but ask him about the most bizarre and he has no problem picking one. It was the time he discovered a long lost 19th century painting, worth £160,000, in a Sheffield toilet.

Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises In Scotland Street

Michael Dowse at the AE Dowse Auction house which will be closing doors at the premises In Scotland Street

“I love this job because you never know what’s round the corner,” he says. “But you wouldn’t dare dream that.”

It was in 2005, while clearing the south Sheffield home of a deceased widow, he came across a particularly effecting canvas left in the lav.

He admired it briefly, then took it to the office to research before selling.

What emerged over the next few weeks astonished the art world. The painting was one of six lost masterpieces by the 19th century French genius Jean-Leon Gerome. Experts had been trying to trace it for decades.

“It ended up selling for £160,000,” says Michael. “I was trying not to smile as the bids kept coming. The joy isn’t in the money, though. It’s in the item itself, in the discovery.”

It is one of many memories he will take when, this month, his Sheffield auction house closes after almost 40 years. The Scotland Street building – well-known for selling everything from toy cars and teddy bears to antiques and glassware – is going, going, soon to be gone.

AE Dowse and Son, the 99-year-old family firm Michael runs with wife Honor, is merging with Sheffield Auction Gallery, in Heeley. And that means the company’s long-serving home is itself to go under the hammer.

“I’ve worked here almost all my adult life,” says 59-year-old Michael. “But I’m excited now about this fresh start and being part of a bigger company.”

If that’s the future, this remains a company with an impeccable past. It was founded by Arthur Edward Dowse in 1915 in Scunthorpe; and moved here in the Sixties when Arthur’s son (and Michael’s dad) Edward Arthur identified Sheffield as ripe for business.

They settled in Scotland Street around 1975, and, shortly after, decided to leave Scunthorpe altogether.

Today, it’s easy to see why it’s been a success here.

The six-staff company hosts three auctions a month but the place is open most days for potential buyers to browse.

And plenty might appeal to them. The place is an Aladdin’s cave of tables and chairs, cabinets and clocks, decorative dogs, pottery and plates, china and more.

Everything here has either been brought by people hoping to sell, or collected via those house clearances.

“You can get some strange things,” notes Michael. “One we cleared had a safe deposit box. There was just a map inside directing us to floorboards in the utility room. Under them was £25,000 worth of gold sovereigns.”

He enjoys being on the rostrum, hammer in hand, too. “I remember selling a carpet which had belonged to a divorced couple,” he says. “They both wanted it back. It was only worth about £20 but they kept trying to outbid each other until one ended up paying £150.”

Now, though, he’s done enough looking back.

“I love this job,” he says. “If I’m fit enough, I’ll still be on the rostrum when I’m 90.”

* Last auction June 28. Details at toyauction.info

AUCTION FIRM BY NUMBERS...

3 - sales a month.

5 - pounds, minimum starting price for cheapest lots.

6 - members of staff.

99 - years since AE Dowse opened.

500 - people, rough numbers of visitors to AE Dowse auctions every month.

800 - lots at most sales.

160,000 - pounds, most expensive sale.