Bought for a song, iconic Maud Lewis painting fetches $22K at auction

One of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis's most iconic paintings sold for over $22,000 this week at a Toronto auction. The original owner, an Ontario resident, had purchased the painting directly from Lewis for between $5 and $10 by mail order in the 60s and passed it down to her family.

Original owner purchased the painting, Three Black Cats, directly from Lewis for no more than $10

Maud Lewis's Three Black Cats sold for $22,000 this week at an auction in Toronto. It had been purchased directly from Lewis for between $5 and $10 in the late 1960s. (Consignor Canadian Fine Art)

If you have old paintings collecting dust in your attic, you might want to hang onto them or get them appraised.

A Maud Lewis painting originally purchased five decades ago for no more than $10 sold at auction Tuesday night in Toronto for a whopping $22,420.

Considered one of Lewis's most iconic pieces, Three Black Cats was originally purchased by an Ontario resident, who passed the painting down to her children. They then passed it down to their children.

"Maud Lewis painted multiple versions of this subject and this particular painting was purchased by a mail order directly from the artist in the late 60s for about ... five or ten dollars. That was her price," said Katherine Meredith, a Canadian art specialist for Consignor Canadian Fine Art, an auction house in Toronto that specializes in Canadian historical and post-war art.

Maud Lewis's Pair of Oxen with Sled of Logs. (Consignor Canadian Fine Art)

Thursday's successful bid at the Gardiner Museum even succeeded the auction estimate of $12,000-$15,000 for the Nova Scotia artist's piece.

Two of Lewis's other paintings — Pair of Oxen with Sled of Logs and Red Sleigh on a Country Road — also sold at the auction, fetching $16,000 and $20,000, respectively, also exceeding their estimates.

Lewis died in 1970. After her death, she became one of Canada's most well-known folk artists.

Red Sleigh on a Country Road is another well-known Maud Lewis painting. (Consignor Canadian Fine Art)

Meredith said she is not surprised the paintings sold for such high prices due to the popularity of Maudie, the 2017 film about Lewis's life.

"People come in our gallery and … they've never been in the gallery before, they don't really know anything about art, but they instantly recognize the Maud Lewis cats, so it's brought a lot of attention to our gallery and our auctions."

The Maud Lewis house, where the late folk artist lived and painted for years in rural Nova Scotia, is one of the enduring displays at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Lewis's paintings, she added, hold a very unique place in the story of Canadian art history.

"She painted these really, really charming scenes that sometimes captured the Canadian landscape ... and she found such a joy in her paintings despite many troubles in her life," said Meredith. "And I think people are really drawn to that narrative in Canadian art."

The original tiny house that Lewis shared with her husband, Everett, has been restored and is housed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. That, along with many of Lewis's paintings, remains one of the gallery's most popular permanent exhibits.

"We get a wide range of reactions, people who come in, especially people from overseas and people who travel to Nova Scotia ... there's a lot of excitement when they get to see the original house," said Colin Stinson, the gallery's director of marketing.

"There's of course large popularity for her work across the country and now internationally, as well. So people know Maud Lewis. They're getting to know more about her and about her life and her work."

Outside of her artwork, one of the more compelling things about Lewis is her story.

This photo shows the inside of Maud Lewis's tiny house at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

She was born in Nova Scotia's Yarmouth County and later in life moved to Digby County. She lived with debilitating arthritis and in poverty — the little dwelling she shared with Everett had no electricity or running water. But every available inch of the home was covered in brightly painted flowers, butterflies and birds.

"She was never a trained artist, so her experiences and what she put down on her canvasses are really the material that was made available to her," Stinson said.

"A lot of her work was almost aspirational of a simpler time where you would see depictions of horse-drawn carriages and sleigh rides in the snow, fields being plowed with oxen. It really depicted a happier, simpler life."

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca