Valentine's Day jubilee for Toovey's - the Sussex auction house with a huge heart

Rupert Toovey at his auction house
Rupert Toovey at his auction house

The day before we met, auctioneer Rupert Toovey had been busy persuading a gentleman in the process of downsizing his home not to sell his three most prized possessions.

That might seem a curious objective for a man who has spent his entire working life bringing wonderful items to the salesroom.

'Rev Toovey is not your typical auctioneer.'

'Rev Toovey is not your typical auctioneer.'

But Rev Toovey is not your typical auctioneer.

He advised the client not to part with the three items because they were precious to him in ways far more important than a monetary valuation might reveal.

"They reflected part of the patchwork quilt of his life. And one of the objects particularly he considered to be truly beautiful. It seems to me that in life it's part of our human purpose to make beauty in the world and it's right we should celebrate it. He needed to take them with him."

This Valentine's Day, Toovey's - of which Rupert is chairman and founder - will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Like so much that defines his life, that original launch was a step of faith.

He had driven all around the county trying to find the right building. Finally, he alighted on the perfect home for Toovey's on the Star Road trading estate at Partridge Green which had a huge amount of car parking.

With his uncle and his dad - family is the hallmark of the business - they formed an advance party to get the building ship shape and many of the team he had previously led at Bellman's joined them in the venture.

"I thought, I'll open on Valentine's night. Well, if you're young and foolish you don't think about these things very carefully, but as it approached I thought oh my goodness, nobody's going to come. And it was blowing a terrible storm and the water was running down the road."

But people came in their droves.

"Teresa - my wife - will tell you that she turned into the Star Road trading estate and couldn't find anywhere to park. And she thought, thank goodness, it's going to be fine. My mother had done the catering and the wine was abundant, the food was abundant. The cake got cut smaller and smaller. You wouldn't believe you could get that many people in a building. And after that, of course, you never looked back. But it was heart in your mouth at the start!"

Since then, the regional auction house - whose catchment stretches from Portsmouth to Bexhill and up to South London in a sort of arc - has been responsible for many landmark international sales.

Take, for example, the De La Rue Collection from Rusper which gave Toovey’s its first truly world-class results in 1998. The remarkable collection came from the famous De La Rue family, who printed money and stamps for the British Empire; or the Little Thakeham House Sale of Arts and Crafts furniture and objects collected by Tim and Pauline Ractliff for their Edwin Lutyens house, Little Thakeham.

The Bolney Lodge Collection saw buyers spend well over a million pounds on furniture and works of art from the estate of the late Judge Coles QC.

None of this success fell in his lap. It had to be worked for.

"Well let me say that if you have your own business, then it's a way of life not a job. So you just do what has to be done. And it's joyful!"

Part of that joy is bringing together and developing just the right team to work alongside you in the great adventure.

"We have 20 staff and we have another eight retained consultants and then we have a beautiful tidal workforce who come in around the sales - wonderful people, young and old who bless each other across the generations.

"They're all fantastic. Even those that aren't family are family.They're such an extraordinarily talented and spirited bunch of people, most of whom have been with me their entire careers. To train and enable people to be the biggest people that they are able to be is the greatest privilege, actually. But it's so important also, isn't it, to notice not where people arrive with you but where they have got to. Part of what I do is I nail the canvass to the frame and then I hand out the paint brushes to the right people to paint on it."

But they paint those great pictures in a way unheard of in most sales operations.

"Nobody in the firm has a target - only to look after the wonderful people, our clients - their interests are absolutely first."

While that very traditional approach to putting the customer first is at the heart of the business, innovation has been the key that has unlocked some of the biggest achievements.

"In Tooveys.com we've invested massively. Tooveys was the first auction house in the country to have the marketing website and it really is industry-leading. That's important in one sense but it's most valuable because we have the depth of expertise behind it so that if you're buying things for your Asian art collection in Hong Kong you know that if you speak to Lars Tharp whose our Asian art consultant or Tom Rowsell that you will trust their eyes as much as your own if not more. That quality of expertise as well as the technology is vital."

Nor, in his drive for technological marketing has he overlooked traditional newspapers, like this one and its sister titles. He has advertised in them throughout the 25 years and regularly contributes highly respected articles.

Why?

"It's about patronage and it's about reputation. To have that quality of voice with the integrity that our local newspapers bring is really vital to our community and despite what everybody says the best way to directly meet the people that you want to encounter is through your local newspapers. They are vital to the business."

In our interview, he mentions the word 'beautiful' a lot. It is beauty which motivates him.

"I've always wanted to do things beautifully. So the real inspiration is actually about being passionate about people, about being passionate about art and antiques. So I've never chased the money, it's never been the driver. Everything has always been a happy accident of doing the right thing and running a good ship."

Being captain of that ship, also requires looking ahead to the next 25 years - as well as celebrating the past quarter of a century of business.

"Well I've been reflecting on the next 25 years and the wonderful thing is my brother Nicholas Toovey and Tom Rowsell I have brought them into equity-holding directorship within the company. It's really important to me that I can see a procession for Toovey's for it to be run by like-minded people who have the same values, even if they are inspired differently.

"And my hope for Toovey's is that in another 25 years when it's its 50th anniversary that it will still be a regional centre of expertise, that it will still be an organisation that enables people to come into the profession to grow, to flourish and to discover their gifts. And I hope that it will still be, in all humility, a force for good in the local community."

That force for good extends to substantial on-going support of the Sussex arts and heritage scene - through the sponsoring of exhibitions to giving his time for fund-raising auctions.

Toovey’s are long-term sponsors of the Shipley Arts Festival, Pallant House Gallery, Sussex Heritage Trust, the wonderful Horsham Museum and Art Gallery, the National Trust at Petworth and many others.

"Our company continues to invest in the Sussex community which I love, supporting numerous charities and community groups including Mary How Trust, our local hospices St Barnabas, Chestnut Tree House, St Catherine’s and the Friends of Sussex Hospices, the NSPCC, as well as the WI, U3A and numerous parish churches across the county with talks, professional advice and fund-raising."

That outreach is reflected in his spiritual life. Rupert is rooted and sent from St Mary’s, Storrington where he is licensed as an Associate Vicar in the Church of England. It is from this ancient Christian place that he is sent to exercise workplace ministry amongst the networks of people he serves, often at profound moments of change in their lives.

"Waiting on invitation I take sacrament and blessing out into the world, meeting and serving people where they are. I observe, celebrate and affirm calling and vocation in the everyday - work can be holy and in God’s purpose. My calling to ordained ministry came later in life. I was ordained as a Priest in the Church of England in 2011."

But why, when he was already so busy and committed to the community, did he decide to take that step of faith?

"That's God's sense of humour, isn't it? I have a really deep sense of calling, of vocation to be an auctioneer and the way that I seek to serve people in the world has always been borne out of my faith, and it informs the way that I engage people.

"What became apparent going back over ten years ago now was that there was a new and persistent calling coming from God. God's very patient with me so he repeats himself until I finally notice. Once you've heard - like listening to a loving mother telling you something important - there's no peace without answering it.

"And it's a really exciting thing that they way that God has called me is to affirm what's beautiful in our community because there is calling and vocation in all our walks of life if only we stopped to notice. Actually the really valuable bit of what we do in our work is the bit often we don't charge for."

So will he slow down a little after 25 years?

"I can't imagine it at the moment. I've got such a rich tapestry already, haven't I?" he says with his irrepressible boyish good-humour.

He will pause for a special celebration on Valentine's night to mark the 25 years although even then the main objective will be to raise much needed funds for Chestnut Tree House.

I will join him on that evening.

It has been my privilege to have known Rupert for all those 25 years and longer. I first encountered him at Bury village hall bringing down his gavel at a charity auction. He is every bit as sincere in his mission to the community as his actions would suggest. And, to borrow his favourite word, every bit as beautiful in the way he discharges those duties before both the people of this region and his God.