A Maud Lewis painting just sold at auction for the hammer price of $350,000. That’s a lot of cheese.
The price for the 13-inch by 11-inch Black Truck from 1967 has astounded the art world, fetching 10 times its highest presale estimate and obliterating the previous record for a painting by the beloved Nova Scotia folk artist, who died relatively unknown in 1970 at age 67. The previous high water mark for a Lewis work was $67,250 (which includes an 18-per-cent premium paid to the auction house). The total money paid for Black Truck, with the buyer’s premium added on, is a whopping $413,000.
What accounts for the jackpot price? The auctioneer has a surprising answer:
“Grilled cheese sandwiches,” said Ethan Miller, chief executive officer of Miller and Miller Auctions Ltd., based in New Hamburg, Ont. “The biggest misconception is that people buy art because it is a visual object and that’s the end of the story. But it really isn’t, especially when it comes to a heroine like Maud Lewis.”
The Black Truck tale, which has been getting international attention, is that the painting was acquired by the sellers nearly 50 years ago in exchange for grilled cheese sandwiches. In the 1970s, Irene and Tony Demas owned and operated The Villa restaurant in London, Ont. Two of the regular customers were John Kinnear and his wife Audrey. The late Mr. Kinnear was an English painter who every day ordered one of Irene Demas’s grilled-cheese lunches. He often traded his own paintings for meals.
In addition to being in favour of fried bread and cheddar, Mr. Kinnear was a champion of Ms. Lewis, a tiny woman who never had two pennies to rub together, and even if she did, her arthritically deformed fingers might not have been up to the task. Mr. Kinnear would send Ms. Lewis paint and prepared boards; in return, Ms. Lewis would ship back paintings that he would sell for her. In Nova Scotia, Ms. Lewis peddled her paintings by the roadside near the cramped, unmodern cottage she shared with her skinflint husband. She might get $10 each. In Ontario, Mr. Kinnear could get double or triple that price.
One day in 1973, Mr. Kinnear brought in a selection of six Lewis works for the spatula-wielding Ms. Demas. She was not impressed.
“I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Ms. Demas told The Globe and Mail after last weekend’s auction. “The paintings seemed to be something done by a child.”
Lewis’s brightly coloured depictions of rural Nova Scotia did indeed capture a childlike sense of happiness and innocence. Cats and upbeat winter scenes were often involved. Looking over the paintings propped up by glassware on the restaurant tables, Ms. Demas settled on Black Truck, a simple depiction of a man driving his practical, motorized vehicle of choice. “It just made me smile,” she said.
Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars later, she’s still smiling.
Three hand-written letters by Ms. Lewis to Mr. Kinnear, also owned by Irene and Tony, sold for $70,000 ($82,600 with buyer’s premium), well above their $5,000 estimate. While the Demas’s windfall was a surprise, the prices for Ms. Lewis’s work have been steadily creeping upward lately. The Lewis market is literally hot in Smith’s Cove, N.S., where last year a pair of Lewis paintings were stolen from a seaside cottage. One appraiser valued the works at around $80,000.
The 2016 biographical drama Maudie, which starred Sally Hawkins as Lewis, drew attention to the painter. Interest in Canada was further encouraged by a recent exhibition of her work curated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.
“That exhibit is very well-organized,” said Alan Deacon, a Maud Lewis expert based in Nova Scotia. “It’s not all higgledy-piggledy.” The exhibition, which has been touring since it opened at the McMichael in 2019, will spend this summer at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Mr. Deacon knew Ms. Lewis. In 1968, he visited her and bought an oxen in winter painting. “It was still wet,” he recalled. “It was $10, and you couldn’t haggle the price.”
The auction price for Black Truck was haggled upon and then some. Multiple bidders quickly drove the price to $100,000, but most of the participants dropped out at $150,000. The hardball action after $250,000 was between just a pair of passionate hopefuls. A bully bid that jumped the price to $350,000 from $330,000 sealed the deal.
Miller said the unidentified winning bidder is not a Lewis collector but someone who had recently read about Black Truck and who had watched the Lewis biopic the night before the auction. The buyer was inspired by Ms. Lewis and saw the story of the painting and the simpler-times grilled-cheese transaction as a symbol of what is needed today.
“He told me he saw the painting as a juxtaposition in terms of the way he has seen the world in the last two years, and he thought it was an example of the way the world should be from this day forward,” Mr. Miller said. “He wants to put the darkness behind him. That’s what he told me he saw in Black Truck – brightness and optimism.”
The seller understands the buyer’s sentiment. “There is something magical about the painting,” said Ms. Demas, now retired. “My husband and I loved it and cared for it for 50 years, but we’re not going to be around for another 50. We’re glad Black Truck is in a good place.”
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