NEW HAMBURG, Ont. –
Hungry for some uplifting news, a man from western Canada stumbled across a story about a painting up for auction. The work by acclaimed Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis had been traded in the 1970s for some grilled cheese sandwiches. Recently, it was valued pre-auction at around $35,000.
“There isn’t much good news out there, and then I came across that little article,” the buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, told CTV News.
“I hadn’t actually heard of Maud Lewis.”
The man bought the painting recently for a record $350,000, which is five times more than any Lewis painting had previously sold for and 10 times the estimated price.
He and his wife had watched a movie about Lewis the night before the auction and say they thought it would be nice to be part of the story behind the painting, which is of a black truck on a rural road.
“For the last four or five years, I was saying to my wife I’m looking for a little black truck and I think I found it,” he said.
The eye-popping price the painting fetched still has collectors all abuzz.
“The galleries that have these things for sale, immediately nothing is for sale because prices are being calibrated,” said Ethan Miller of Miller & Miller Auctions, which listed the painting.
Lewis, who died in 1970, lived much of her life in poverty in a one-room house in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. She suffered from debilitating arthritis and sold her paintings on the roadside, often for $5. She scrounged for paint from local fishermen and her works have been described as happy, joyous and childlike. They were often similar with scenes of rural life, including landscapes and wide-eyed cats.
“She was completely untrained but I think that’s what people love so much about it,” said Justin Miller, who co-runs the auction house in New Hamburg, Ont.
“As we’re coming out of the pandemic, I think people are looking for exciting things, colourful things, fun things,” he said.
Another one of the Lewis’ oil paintings, depicting a pair of oxen, also sold at the auction for $70,000, the second-highest price ever paid for one of her works.
Bill Mayberry is an art dealer who has sold more than 250 of her paintings since the 1980s. He says the sales will probably raise the tide on most of Lewis’ paintings, noting she initially sold her art on Christmas cards for a few cents.
“She would be completely amazed and bewildered by the amount of attention her work has received in recent years. The kind of numbers that she could never even have imagined,” said Mayberry.
The truck painting, one of three known to exist, had been obtained by Irene Demas and her husband Tony nearly 50 years ago. The couple were running a restaurant in London, Ont., and a regular customer was local artist John Kinnear. Kinnear had been helping Lewis with supplies and in return she had sent him several of her paintings. He offered up six of them to Demas in exchange for some lunchtime grilled cheese sandwiches.
“One caught my eye, which was the black truck. It was a very bright, very happy little painting,” said Demas.
“I was pregnant with my son and I thought, it’ll look cute in the baby’s room.”
She only chose the one painting.
Nearly 50 years later, she can’t believe it sold for so much money.
“I wish I had taken all six,” she said with a chuckle.
She hopes the story will draw more attention to Lewis, who spent most of her life in obscurity.
“I think that it’s time that Canadians take more notice of her and appreciate her.”