A painting believed by some to be by Tom Thomson – and bought for under $100 on a whim a few years ago at an East Vancouver garage sale – sold at auction in Vancouver Wednesday night for $126,500 – a tidy profit, to be sure, but below the pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $250,000.
"Should be three times this," said Maynards president Barry Scott, as he was trying to drive up the price through the bidding. "It's going to go once for 95 [thousand] Twice for 95 [thousand] Not near enough."
The painting ultimately fetched a hammer price of $110,000 – plus a 15 per cent buyer's premium.
The small (20.8 x 27.7 cm) oil-on-plywood sketch, believed by the auction house to have been painted in the spring or summer of 1915 – possibly from Thomson's canoe – was brought into Maynards Antiques & Fine Art auction house in early February. An older man, now retired, was carrying it in a brown paper shopping bag, along with a framed watercolour bearing Group of Seven member Frederick Horsman Varley's signature.
He'd bought them at a garage sale a few years ago, he explained. Not an art expert by any means, he was however somewhat familiar with the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson's work and thought there was a chance they might be authentic, so he bought them, paying $80 for the pair.
"He said they were an impulse purchase," says Kate Bellringer, director of contemporary and Canadian art at Maynards.
The man – who has chosen to remain anonymous – couldn't have been too serious about the purchase initially, because he left them in storage, sitting in a box at his daughter's place. This year she was moving, though, and she told him it was time for him to get his junk out of her place.
So he brought them into Maynards.
"My first impression was that the Tom Thomson was quite dirty, but you could make out a partial signature," says Bellringer, who began researching the two works immediately.
She went to about six experts – all in Canada – over two months, and received a consensus: "Everyone who has seen the painting in person believes [it]to be an authentic Tom Thomson," she says. Bellringer declined to name the experts.
The same process, she says, was employed to authenticate the Varley, which is believed to have been painted in England in 1901 – before he moved to Canada – while home on vacation from his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. "Everyone believes that the Varley is authentic," Bellringer says.
The Varley sold for $7,475 ($6,500 plus buyer's premium), which exceeded the estimate of $4,000 to $6,000.
Word of the yard sale find, when initially reported by the media, kicked off a storm. "I think we had everyone in Canada who's ever been to a garage sale sending us images." says Bellringer.
The possible Thomson was estimated "a bit lower" than it would have been, had its provenance been known, said Bellinger, before the sale. "We don't know exactly who Tom Thomson gave it to or who he sold it to. We don't have the provenance that traces it all the way back to the artist. ... However at this price, this is a deal for someone who is interested in buying a Tom Thomson."
But there are skeptics. Granville Fine Art owner Ken Macdonald was shaking his head as he examined the small work before the auction. "The plywood cracked differently" said Macdonald, an art consultant who has bought and sold 17 Tom Thomson works over the years. "I owned three pieces that were painted in 1914 on plywood, and the plywood cracked right through and delaminated. Whereas this [the garage sale painting]just has aged plywood, versus actual lifting and delaminating," he said.
"Number two, the bottom part doesn't seem right. I've never seen him [Thomson]do that particular brush stroke."
Macdonald suggested the work might be more recent than 1915.
"There were a lot of fakes put out, and the thing that bothers me the most is the fact that all you have to do is take it to CCI and test for Freeman's White."
The Canadian Conservation Institute can test for the paint, which Thomson is known to have used, and which Macdonald says the company stopped making in 1920.
"It wasn't tested," said Macdonald. "Not tested, not true. ... What are you afraid of?"