London restaurateurs trade grilled cheese for paintings

That’s some crazy cheddar.

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That’s some crazy cheddar.

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A painting by famed Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis that was traded to a London restaurateur in exchange for a grilled cheese sandwich 50 years ago has fetched a whopping $350,000 at auction — — and even far surpassed high-end expectations before the bidding began.

The sale price of the tiny Canadian painting with a bizarre backstory stunned the painting’s owners, who were watching Saturday’s live online auction.

“I was watching it by myself. My husband was watching it in a small village in Greece. Our daughter was watching it in Athens and our son was watching it in Toronto,” said Erin DeMars, seller of Lewis paintings, and her husband Tony .

“We texted each other back and forth like, ‘Do you believe it? Once it was over $100,000, they were kind of worried about me because I almost started getting chest pains.'”

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DeMars said she woke up Sunday morning and drove in disbelief to Miller & Miller Auctions in New Hamburg, the auction house that sold the painting.

“I went to check and found out that I wasn’t dreaming, it was real,” she said. “It does feel very surreal.”

The painting’s starting price is $25,000.

“That’s the highest price we’ve ever sold for an item, and it’s five times the highest price we’ve ever sold at a Maud auction,” auctioneer Ethan Miller said on Monday.

“Lewis is a female artist who has overcome all odds, including physical adversity, and achieved these incredible achievements. If only she could have known what was going on.”

Miller said there was a fierce two-way bidding process for the painting. The original Lewis was sold to an unspecified Canadian buyer, he said.

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Demas and her husband are the former owners of The Villa, a restaurant at 434 Richmond Street near Queens Boulevard.

The London artist John Kinnear, who corresponded with Lewis, was a frequent visitor to the villa in the 1960s and 70s and had a fixed lunch order: grilled cheese sandwiches.

One day Kinnear came in with some of Lewis’ paintings and the letters he had exchanged with her. Tony and Erin DeMars picked out a painting, a country road with a black truck, and agreed to give Kinnear a steady stream of lunch staples in exchange. The Kinnear-Lewis letter was auctioned separately on Saturday for $70,000.

The black truck painting hung in their son’s room throughout his childhood. Now that their son has grown up, the family felt it was time to put the painting down. DeMars said they had no immediate plans to receive the six-figure sum.

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Lewis was born with a birth defect and suffered from severe arthritis that affected her fingers. Living in poverty, she often painted on found objects, including unprimed wooden boards or clam shells.

She painted for decades, but rose to fame in the 1960s, largely because of an article about her in Star Weekly magazine.

As she grew in popularity, Lewis fans sent her supplies. Kinnear sends her primed fiberboard, paint, and brushes. Lewis died in 1970. Her art and life story have gained more attention over the past decade, especially after the 2016 biographical film Modi starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, and her recent art exhibition.

While the jaw-dropping amount of money that came with the black truck painting is exciting, DeMars says it’s heartening that Lewis is finally getting the recognition and fame she’s never had in her life.

“It’s such a special little painting, and I’ve always believed in my heart that her painting was worth more than they wanted,” she said.

“Finally, I think the art world is realizing that we do have a national treasure in Maud Lewis, and people will see her art differently after Saturday.”

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