Home Art sale Maude Lewis painting swapped for grilled cheese sells for a small fortune

Maude Lewis painting swapped for grilled cheese sells for a small fortune

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Like clockwork, John Kinnear and his wife Audrey went to the same restaurant every afternoon and sat at the table by the circular window. Kinnear only ordered one thing: a grilled cheese sandwich.

“I couldn’t convince Mr. Kinnear to have anything else,” said Irene Demas, 69, who owned Mediterranean restaurant The Villa with her husband Tony in Ontario for about a decade in the 1970s.

The sandwich, priced at $1.95, was made with fresh bread from a local Italian bakery, aged cheddar cheese and a substantial layer of butter to make it perfectly crisp – just how Kinnear liked it.

Kinnear, an artist, lived around the corner from the Villa, and he and his wife, both in their 50s, made it their regular meeting place for several years in the early 1970s. The Kinnears, who are no longer living , developed a close friendship with the Demas.

“My husband made a deal with them to trade food for art,” Demas said, adding that Kinnear often showed up for lunch, clutching a painting or two under his arm. “We needed art for our walls, and he needed to eat every day.”

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Demas said their arrangement with Kinnear was not unusual at the time.

“In the 70s, it was different. We weren’t thinking so much about ourselves; we thought about our neighbors and how we could help each other,” she said. “They were very generous and in return we did what we could for them.”

Yet Demas and her now 90-year-old husband never imagined that a painting Kinnear traded them for a simple sandwich would one day be worth a small fortune.

While Kinnear mainly brought his own work to the restaurant, he once arrived with several colorful paintings by a Nova Scotia artist named Maud Lewis.

“Choose whichever one you like,” Kinnear told the couple, after sharing the artist’s backstory, Demas recalled.

Lewis was a poor painter in eastern Canada who could barely afford supplies, and she had suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis since her teenage years. Kinnear read about her in a 1965 newspaper article with the title “The little old lady who painted pretty pictures”.

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As a fellow artist, Kinnear was touched by her story and began sending her supplies including brushes and paints. In exchange for his kindness, Lewis gave Kinnear several paintings. She usually sold her artwork at the roadside for $10 a piece.

Demas said the paintings – which Kinnear had placed on chairs in the restaurant that day – had a playful quality that intrigued him.

“I had never seen anything like it,” she said. One in particular, with a black truck, “just jumped on me”.

“I knew in my heart that it was a very, very special painting,” said Demas, who was pregnant at the time and ended up hanging the painting in her son’s bedroom. He stayed there for 50 years and was eventually admired by his two granddaughters, who often slept in this room.

Along with the painting, Kinnear gave the couple a series of letters Lewis had sent her, in which she thanked him for the supplies, Demas said.

The Demases had no idea that Lewis, who died in 1970, would become one of Canada’s greatest folk artists, although she never achieved wealth or notoriety during her lifetime.

Alan Deacon, an expert on Lewis’s work who authenticates his paintings, said his art rose in value after his death. In November 2021, one coin sold for a record $52,394.

As the Demases researched more of Lewis’s work, they recognized the rarity of their particular painting.

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Lewis often used repeated images in his art, such as schools, train stations, and cats. But the black truck rarely appeared in his paintings, Deacon said.

“I’ve been following auctions for over 20 years and haven’t found a black truck,” he said, adding that trucks were only present in Lewis’s later paintings.

The Demases have thought about auctioning off their piece for the past few years, but they couldn’t agree to sell it. Then, about a year ago, as the couple were downsizing their home, they decided to assess a few things, including the truck’s black paint job and the letters authenticating Kinnear’s relationship with Lewis.

Miller & Miller Auctions valued the piece at around $27,255 and the letters – which are also considered rare – at $3,893.

First, the Demas gifted the artwork to their two children, who both urged their parents to sell it and enjoy the profits when they retire. The couple decided it was time to part ways with the painting.

“It was not an easy decision. It was part of our history,” Demas said. “I knew the right person was going to come and see something special in that painting we saw all those years ago.”

She was right. At a virtual auction on May 14, the painting sold for $272,548, more than 10 times its estimated value. The letters raised over $54,500.

“I was just speechless,” Demas said.

Ethan Miller, managing director of the auction house, was also stunned.

“Off the charts is an understatement,” he said. “I think everyone saw in this painting exactly what Maud wanted, which was brightness, optimism and fun.”

He believes the sale’s success stems in large part from the story of the grilled cheese sandwich, which was published ahead of the auction.

“Just considering the heaviness of this time that we’ve managed to survive, all of a sudden someone mentions a grilled cheese sandwich and a famous artist who overcame physical adversity,” Miller said. “All of these things combined are as irresistible as a grilled cheese sandwich.”

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The buyer, a Canadian who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, said that was precisely what prompted him to buy the painting.

While sipping his morning coffee a few weeks ago, he came across the story, and “there was just something that struck me,” he said in a phone interview with the Washington Post, adding that “I’m not an art collector by any means.”

The day before the auction, he and his wife watched the 2016 film, “Maudie,” which chronicles Lewis’ life. After learning his story of resilience, he wanted the piece – which he plans to hang in the bedroom his two grandchildren, aged 6 and 8, sleep in when they stay at his home in the West canadian.

“When they go to sleep watching this, it will be a good thing for them,” he said.

The Demas said they were at peace knowing the painting will continue to be cherished. They plan to use the windfall to spoil their grandchildren, support their favorite charities and feel more secure in their retirement.

“It’s a good idea that I will never have to make another grilled cheese sandwich again,” Demas joked.

Deacon said the story is reminiscent of a quote from art critic Clement Greenberg: “It is also remembered how in art the tortoise so often surpasses the hare.”

In this case, “Maud Lewis is most definitely the turtle,” Deacon said.

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