Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies will be displayed at Philip Mould & Company in London. Photograph: Philip Mould & Company
A portrait of a young and handsome Charles Dickens that was lost for 174 years has been discovered in a tray of trinkets at an auction in South Africa.
The discovery is one of the most remarkable finds of recent memory. The art dealer Philip Mould, who was instrumental in its identification, said: “I’ve spent a career specialising in British art and this ranks among the most exciting things we have ever discovered.
It is the lost portrait.”It was found last year in a general sale in Pietermaritzburg in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal.
A man paid the equivalent of £27 for a cardboard tray containing a metal lobster, an old recorder, a brass plate and a small painting which was so covered with mould that the face could barely be made out.
The finder took it out of the frame, which he sold. “He was moments away from basically throwing away this fungus-covered picture and then he started looking at it and realised that the face was very compelling,” said Mould.
With the help of some online research the finder realised it had the look of Dickens, which prompted him to contact Mould’s gallery and the miniatures consultant Emma Rutherford.
“She came to me and said something extraordinary has come up – it has an appearance of the lost portrait of Charles Dickens,” said Mould, who is best known for Fake or Fortune, the BBC One series he presents with Fiona Bruce.