A career going under the hammer

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
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Final sale for auction house that has become a veritable Aladdins cave of tables and chairs, cabinets and clocks, decorative dogs, pottery and plates.

Michael Dowse has come across some unusual finds during his career as an auctioneer ask him about the most bizarre and he has no problem picking one. It was the time he discoverd 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 on Scotland Street

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

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

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

He admired it briefly, and then took it back to the office to research it ahead of selling.

What emerged over the next couple of weeks astonished the art world. The painting was not only by one of the 19th century’s finest artists, Frenchman Jean-Leon Gerome; it was one of six of his long lost works. Experts had been trying to track it down for decades.

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

It is one of many memories he will take with him when, later this month, his Sheffield auction house closes after almost 40 years.

The distinctive 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. That means the company’s long-serving home is itself to go under the hammer. “Will I be sad to leave?” ponders 59-year-old Michael. “It’s strange but I’m not sure I will. I’ve worked here almost all my adult life but I’m more excited about the fresh start and being part of a bigger company. This is very much taking AE Dowse forward.”

If that’s the future, there’s little doubt this is a company with an impeccable past.

It was founded by Arthur Edward Dowse in 1915 not in Sheffield but in Scunthorpe. The firm only moved here when Arthur’s son, Edward Arthur (that’s Michael’s dad) decided to expand, and identified Sheffield as being ripe for an auction house.

That was the Sixties. The first base was in West Street, followed by one in Neepsend, before they settled in Scotland Street around 1975. Shortly after, the family decided to leave Scunthorpe altogether and focus their energies in South Yorkshire “Sheffield very quickly became more successful,” explains Michael who started with the firm, after training, in the last Seventies.

Today, it’s easy to see why.

The six-staff operation hosts three auctions a month - split between antiques, furniture, toys and collectables - but the rest of the week the place is open for potential buyers to wander around, browsing to see if anything takes their fancy.

And plenty might. The place is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of tables and chairs, cabinets and clocks, decorative dogs, pottery and plates, china, glass lamps, and more besides. The cheapest lots will go for a fiver (“bric-a-brac mainly,” says Michael). The most expensive was that Gerome but anything over £25,000 constitutes a good day’s work.

Everything here has either been brought in by people wanting to sell, or collected during house clearances. Michael tends to carry those out personally.

“You can get some strange things,” he notes. “One we cleared had a safe deposit box. There was just a map inside directing us under some floorboards in the utility room. What was in there? About £25,000 worth of gold sovereigns.”

He enjoys being on the rostrum, hammer in hand, too. He exudes enthusiasm and energy in a bid to keep people...well, bidding. Although they don’t always need encouragement.

“I remember selling a carpet which had belonged to a divorced couple in the Seventies,” he says. “They were both at the auction and they both wanted it back. It was only worth about £20 but they kept trying to outbid each other until it was about £150. I think, by the end, they weren’t bothered about getting the carpet, they just wanted the other not to have it.”

Now, though, he’s done enough looking back; and once again he’s looking forward to a new era for AE Dowse.

“I love this job,” he says. “If I’m fit and able to still get on the rostrum when I’m 90, I imagine I’ll still be doing it.”

- The last auction at AE Dowse’s Scotland Street auction house takes place Saturday June 28. See www.toyauction.info for details.