Maude Lewis painting traded for grilled cheeses sells for small fortune

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Like clockwork, John Kinnear and his wife Audrey would go to the same restaurant each afternoon and sit at the table by the circular window. Kinnear would order only one thing: a grilled cheese sandwich.

“I could not convince Mr. Kinnear to have anything else,” said Irene Demas, 69, who owned the 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 smear of butter to make it perfectly crispy — exactly 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 hangout for several years in the early 1970s. The Kinnears, who are no longer alive, developed a close friendship with the Demases.

“My husband made a deal with them to trade food for art,” said Demas, adding that Kinnear would often show 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 wasn’t unusual back then.

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

Still, Demas and her husband, who is now 90, 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 an artist from Nova Scotia named Maud Lewis.

“Pick the one you like,” Kinnear told the couple, after he shared 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 she was a teen. Kinnear read about her in a 1965 newspaper article with the headline “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 typically sold her artwork at the side of the road for $10 per piece.

Demas said the paintings — which Kinnear propped up on chairs in the restaurant that day — had a playful quality that intrigued her.

“I had never seen anything like that,” she said. One in particular, featuring a black truck, “just jumped out at me.”

“I knew deep down in my heart that this 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. It remained there for 50 years, and was eventually admired by her two granddaughters, who often slept in that room.

Along with the painting, Kinnear gave the couple a series of letters Lewis had sent him, 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 foremost folk artists, despite never achieving wealth or prominence in her lifetime.

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

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

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Lewis often used repeated imagery in her art, such as schoolhouses, train stations and cats. But the black truck seldom appeared in her paintings, Deacon said.

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

The Demases thought about auctioning their piece in recent years, but they couldn’t come to terms with selling it. Then, about a year ago, as the couple downsized their home, they decided to appraise a few items — including the black truck painting and the letters that authenticated 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 Demases offered the artwork to their two children, both of whom urged their parents to sell it and enjoy the profits in their retirement. The couple decided it was time to part with the painting.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. It was part of our history,” Demas said. “I knew that the right person was going to come along and would see something special in that painting that we had seen all those years ago.”

She was right. In a virtual auction on May 14, the painting sold for $272,548 — more than 10 times its assessed value. The letters fetched more than $54,500.

“I was just speechless,” said Demas.

Ethan Miller, chief executive officer at the auction house, was also stunned.

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

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

“Just given the heaviness of this era that we’ve managed to survive, suddenly someone mentions a grilled cheese sandwich and a celebrated artist that has overcome physical adversity,” Miller said. “All of those things combined is as irresistible as a grilled cheese sandwich.”

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The buyer, a Canadian man who asked to stay anonymous to protect his privacy, said that was precisely what propelled him to purchase the painting.

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

The evening before the auction, he and his wife watched the 2016 film, “Maudie,” which chronicles Lewis’s life. After learning her story of resilience, he wanted the piece — which he plans to hang in the bedroom that his two grandchildren, ages 6 and 8, sleep in when they stay at his home in Western Canada.

“When they go to sleep looking at that, it will be a good thing for them,” he said.

The Demases said they are 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 nice thought that I’ll never have to make another grilled cheese sandwich,” Demas quipped.

Deacon said the story brought to mind a quote by art critic Clement Greenberg: “One is also reminded of how, in art, the tortoise so often overtakes the hare.”

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

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