JLife speaks to local antiques expert and TV personality Gary Don about rocking out, his formidable collection of black belts, and a family tree blossoming with entertainment fame.
When opera singer Henry Don lost his voice and so set about chalking the boundaries of one of Kirkgate Market’s first antique stalls, little did he know that over 90 years later, his grandson Gary would still be following in his footsteps. Learning the intricacies of the trade in his grandfather’s shop from just five years of age, Gary took over what became his father’s business, selling antiques all over the world from Don’s Exports, situated in the Jewish hub of North Street. Going onto open the city’s first auction house, the antiques icon has since taken the business into the virtual age, hosting live online auctions, where lots are just as likely to go to South Korea as to South Shields.
A resident expert for both TV and radio, Gary has appeared on a long list of programmes, from his regular phone-in on BBC Radio Leeds, to appearances on Flog it and The Antiques Road Trip: “My first appearance on BBC Radio Leeds back in 1977 was as the host of a weekly rock and roll show where we’d invite famous bands like The Who to play,” said Gary. “When the punk rockers from Johnny Moped came on, and proceeded to use some rather colourful language, the programme got ditched and the producers asked me if I could do anything else – and I said yes, I can do antiques!”
In his youth, Gary played lead guitar up and down the country in various bands, and was at one point offered a major recording contract, yet the 67 year-old’s passion for rock and roll is still as strong as ever: “I’m hoping to play an open-air festival in Canada when the current situation blows over. I’ve recently been recording guitar over hip-hop tracks which the producers shove through a washing machine so it sounds nothing like me – but the kids seem to like it. One of the big mistakes I made when I was younger was selling a guitar owned by Jimi Hendrix, which put the kids through school, but I very much regret it now!”
His talents don’t stop there, with eight black belts in Judo, sensei Gary travels the world teaching martial arts, and continues to head Yorkshire Judo at The Hut in Alwoodley: “The thing that gives me the most enjoyment is teaching kids from the age of five alongside my good friend Darren Taylor. I’m now in the wonderful position where the children I taught are bringing their children back into our dojo to learn.”
With one uncle being among the few musicians to play with Django Reinhardt’s The Hot Club of France as a renowned jazz guitarist, and the other running the award-winning New Vic Theatre, entertainment truly runs in the family’s blood. Testament to this, Gary’s daughter Laura is an actress and son Jamie a television director: “Jamie and I appeared on the BBC show Keep it in the Family, about kids taking over their parents’ business. But he ruled out taking over the auction house, and said he wanted to be a director, and thankfully he pursued his dreams, because he has since been nominated for academy awards and is currently shooting a Sky drama.”
Still at the helm of Leeds’ last remaining antiques auction house, the pandemic has streamlined the way the business operates, paving the way for a raft of remarkable finds: “We’re now in a position where we’ve set half a dozen records in the last couple of years. The most surprising finds of recent times was a Led Zeppelin sleeve, with a totally unplayable record, that sold for £4,000; and the case of an elderly lady who found two small L.S. Lowry paintings in a skip which went on to bring in £48,000. “
But for me, the nicest discovery was for a local independent charity shop that put on afternoon tea for elderly residents. They had run out of money, so brought in all this bric-a-brac to raise funds, none of which was worth very much. As they were leaving, I spotted a cloth which had been hidden in a cupboard for over a decade, which turned out to be a banner used by suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, which fetched over £13,000. To me that was one of the best things to happen in my career – it sorted that little charity out in the interests of a lot of people for a very long time.”
When asked what contemporary artefacts readers should stash in the attic in the hope of a tidy sum down the line, Gary replies: “We’re living through a very important time in history, and many interesting objects to do with the pandemic may become very collectible. If you come across something really ridiculous, perhaps a quack COVID remedy, or an interesting item with a misspelling, it may just be worth holding onto. I wouldn’t be surprised if the signs that people have been making in support of the NHS could one day become pieces of folk art.
“Beyond the money, it’s a great thing for everybody to collect the stories of the time and pass them onto their grandkids, because ultimately I believe we have a responsibility to do our part to protect and preserve these crucial pieces of our history.”