The incredibly bright future of Maud Lewis
After a record-breaking 2021, art dealers and lovers are searching for the first $100K Maud
Chad Brown looks anxiously at Sandy Cove, a colour-packed painting of Digby Gut created by Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis. He just travelled to Ontario to pay $40,000 for it. Now, he must sell it.
The current record price for a Maud Lewis was set in November 2021, when Train Station In Winter fetched $67,250.
"Many people agree that good, strong works of Maud's will crack $100,000-plus over the coming few years. It's not if, but when," he says.
"We are in a generational shift where more paintings are being passed down and those are surfacing. And when you have more paintings surface, you start to see different images and better images. So it's fair to say that Maud's best paintings are yet to be seen."
Brown started acquiring Maud Lewis works a few years ago, a passion born of a childhood in Digby, N.S., but during the pandemic, he became a full-time dealer of her paintings.
Lewis, who lived in the village of Marshalltown outside Digby and died in 1970, sold paintings for $2 to $10 during her lifetime, which would equal about $20 to $100 today with inflation. They rose to about $1,000 in value by the 1990s and kept climbing.
But in the years since the 2016 movie Maudie, which was based on Lewis's life and won seven Canadian Screen Awards, prices for the paintings have "exploded," Brown says. "Every auction is breaking a new record."
Brown says a Maud painting that cost $10,000 a few years ago could go for $30,000 today. A few months ago, Brown issued a standing offer: he'll buy any Maud Lewis you care to sell.
He's bought more than 30 original paintings over the last few years and resold most of them. That means he's putting tens of thousands of dollars on the line, in the hopes that he will resell for a margin that keeps him in business.
"Ultimately I'm very fortunate to be in Nova Scotia, where there are lots of Maud Lewis experts that I can tap into. I can send an email, send a text, send pictures, and double-check before I buy anything. The price of paintings now are so high that if I'm spending $30,000 on a painting, it doesn't matter if I think it's authentic or not. If it doesn't pass an expert's opinion, then I can't buy it."
But the established authentication experts in Nova Scotia are aging out of the profession, just as the price of her work rises, creating tension between the desire to buy an authentic Maud, and the fear of getting caught short with a fraud.
To combat that, Brown often travels across Nova Scotia and increasingly across Canada to examine paintings in person before buying them. "I sit down with people for hours on end, talking about how they bought the painting, how much they paid for it, their experience with Maud, and I keep that with the painting," he says.
But he can't keep the paintings. He must find someone who wants Sandy Cove even more than him.
Maud Lewis's spectacular 2021
Alan Bamberger wrote The Art of Buying Art and has been buying and selling art in San Francisco since 1978. He wasn't particularly familiar with Lewis before CBC News contacted him, but he looked into her career.
"In the past year, it looks like something happened," he says. "I was Googling it up and trying to figure out: what's the reason for such an abrupt price increase so far after an artist has passed away? Because that is relatively unusual."
He looked at her auction records, which for Lewis include nearly 600 paintings dating back decades. "Almost all the record auction prices are during 2021."
The movie Maudie certainly drew new eyes to Lewis, but that doesn't explain how she came to have the greatest year of her career in 2021.
In May 2021, four of her paintings went to auction in the U.K. with estimates of a few hundred dollars, but they sold for more than $58,000. That caught Bamberger's eye. "Because according to the information I was looking at, 97 per cent of sales for the artist are in Canada. It's a pretty insular market," he says.
If Maud is attracting international buyers, that could be driving her prices up.
He compares buying art to buying real estate or stocks in a company. An experienced person can turn a profit, but unless you hire "a really good psychic," nobody can say what will happen to prices in the future. Maud might blow past $100,000, or stall out at $67,000.
"Typically, the artist's market levels off, which is why I found it so interesting, this massive price increase in 2021," he says.
When he looked at her paintings, his veteran eye was struck by the "narrow realm" of sizes and subject matters, which to him shows an intense artistic focus. CBC explained to him that her paintings tended to be based on the size of wood her fish-peddling husband chopped up.
"Well, that's the kind of romantic stuff that can really bump a market. It's on fishing wood. Well, that's cool. How many of the competition's paintings are on fishing wood? That kind of stuff, when it comes to light, maybe does impact the market," he says.
What would he say to a would-be Maud buyer today? "I tell them to imagine a continuum. At one end of the continuum is love and on the other end is money. And I say, where on that continuum do you fall? Where are these new buyers falling on the love-money continuum? And perhaps the needle is scooching more toward money than love."
'Something that a child loved to see'
Lance Woolaver saw his first Maud Lewis in 1948 — in fact, it was the Maud Lewis, a beloved friend of his father, Judge Phillip Woolaver. Lance was a baby, and his proud papa took his son the short distance to the little house Lewis shared with her husband, Everett.
The judge often brought her things: tins of sardines, tins of apple juice (four for a dollar in Digby), and a portable transistor radio, batteries included. She was no doubt delighted when he brought baby Lance.
"Our house in Barton was on the road to Maud's home in Marshalltown and Digby, about a 10-minute drive, so we passed by Maud and Ev's literally every day on the way into town," Lance Woolaver says from his Halifax home.
His father paid $5 to $10 each for about 60 Lewis paintings in the 1960s.
"Everyone once in a while, as something fun to do, my mother and I would take them out of the suitcases and hang them on the walls of an old farmhouse in Bear River and we would hang them from the rafters," he says.
"There would be 40 or 50 Maud Lewises hanging by butcher string. If you tied a knot in them every two feet, you could slip the paintings in between. When the light came in the window from the river and hit the massed walls of Maud Lewis paintings, it was really something that a child loved to see."
He also staged early exhibitions of her work at the Digby Pines Hotel in early 1970s. "There were two rather strange reactions," Woolaver says.
The common reaction was people would glance at them, declare their children could paint better than that, and leave. But the second reaction stopped people in their tracks, trying to figure out why they didn't want to stop seeing the world through Lewis's eyes.
Woolaver didn't begin to appreciate her work until he took a trip to Amsterdam to see Vincent van Gogh paintings. He thought back to those paintings catching the sunlight on butcher's string in a barn.
"The first thing you saw about a Maud Lewis painting was how strange the colours were, and how attractive they were, and how she used colour," he says. "And then the next thing you began to see is that very often, they were portraits of unusual subjects, like kitty cats."
He thinks the ordinariness of her subjects is part of the reason some people dismiss her, but it's also a key part of their power, much as van Gogh painted chairs, boots and flowers, capturing his own profound spirit into the mundane objects. "There was something about the way Maud could infuse personality into the portraits," Woolaver says.
He recently read a book about van Gogh and his brother Theo, and learned that Theo at times feared Vincent would physically hurt him.
"With Maud Lewis, there was a constant fear of violence because of her husband, Everett. I don't think he ever hit Maud or abused her physically, but there was always the potential that he would embarrass her, or take her money, or not look after her properly and not feed her properly," he says, noting she often visited the nearby poor farm for food.
He sees something of that poverty, and the threat of violence, bringing a darkness to her paintings that are famously without shadows; they are a sustained effort to create and hold a space for beauty in an ugly world.
Her iconic house is surely the only murder scene preserved in an art gallery. Nine years after Lewis's death, thieves killed Everett in that house in an effort to get the money she'd earned from her work, money that was often stored in the walls, or hidden in the yard. The tiny home was later turned over to the care of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and is now on permanent display.
Woolaver and photographer Bob Brooks once travelled all over Digby County to visit people who had a Maud. Most of the caretakers were women and he was struck by how often the prized paintings weren't displayed for visitors in the front room, but for the family in the kitchen — as if their own child had painted it.
"I think the feeling of comfort came forward because of the struggle and pain that Maud endured to complete the works," he says. "I think Maud's art was a haven for her."
Woolaver has spent the five decades since her death studying her paintings, writing The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis and other books about her life and art.
"She was the most interesting and innocent person I ever came across," he says. "There was no presumption that she was an artist, that she had to build an artistic career. All she was trying to do was make $5 or $10 to buy enough food at the grocery store."
He doesn't own a single Maud Lewis painting; his parents sold their collection years ago to buy a home. He no longer appraises them, either — not for authenticity, nor to guess at a price. But he still welcomes visitors who want to talk about his old friend.
"I love it when people bring a Maud Lewis to my house. Just the opportunity to see it is wonderful."
'Maud Lewis was found by the people first'
Bill Mayberry, who runs Mayberry Fine Art in Winnipeg and Toronto, had his first encounter with a Maud Lewis at an estate sale in the 1980s that included three small paintings. He was entranced.
"Maud was a serial painter, meaning she repeated her subject matter throughout her works. People would collect them like stamps: 'I've got a Digby Gut and a Covered Bridge, now I'm looking for Three Black Cats.' For this reason, many art buyers, serious collectors, museums, and most established dealers gave little credibility to Maud Lewis paintings. They were unfortunately sometimes the butt of a joke," he says.
He learned she was popular on the East Coast, but had made few sales in the West. He sold those estate paintings back to the East for about $1,000. Over the last 20 years, he's scoured Canada and the U.S. for her paintings, posting ads all over Nova Scotia and the eastern states, and holding three exhibits. He's sold more than 250 of her paintings.
"To see something go from $4 to the record now for a Maud Lewis at auction is $67,000, there's really not, in my experience, anyone in Canadian art where there's been that vast change," he says.
He compares her sales to A.Y. Jackson, the founding member of the legendary Group of Seven Canadian artists.
Galleries, museums and private collections suddenly feel incomplete without a Maud. "I've placed several Maud Lewises in collections over the last five, six, seven, eight years, whereas 20 years ago … if I'd offered them a Maud Lewis, they'd have thought, what is this?" Mayberry says.
"Maud Lewis was found by the people first of all. Then the institutions and collectors found Maud. Maud's probably, in my mind, the most authentic folk-art painter in Canada, so if you want the genuine article, you're probably going to have to pay more for it."
Those higher prices will put a greater premium on the provenance of the painting. How well can you document its journey from your hands to Maud's? Do you have experts attesting that it is an original?
"I think going forward it will be more important because you're going to see a Maud Lewis maybe one day in the not too distant future hit $100,000, and criminals will pay attention to that," he says.
In the "unsophisticated market" of today a Maud Lewis is often snapped up when it goes up for sale. That means, Mayberry thinks, people sometimes pay too much for a Maud — and some people pay too little.
"If you're buying a Tom Thomson painting, if you're buying a painting that was 1910, 1911, it's worth considerably less than one done in 1915, 1916, or 1917," he says, noting the same goes for Emily Carr paintings. "These things still have to be sorted out in the Maud marketplace."
He expects bigger prices to go for paintings from her "mature period," dating from about 1950 to 1965.
The era of the garage-sale buyer may be over, he suspects. And as institutions or private collections "lock away" Mauds, that will dry up the sales market, which could also drive up prices.
Despite all the talk of business, he's really still in love with Lewis.
"I think it's the sheer honesty of the work. Art is not always about someone who is highly trained, highly gifted and highly motivated," he says. "Art is mostly about the story, and the story is a great one with Maud. The underdog painting in her little house selling her paintings for $4? That story gets the attention of everyone, including art dealers like myself."
And through those eyes, Lewis is forever in her painting prime.
"Art outlives us all. Outlives the artist, outlives the people who are the custodians of it during their lifetime," he says.
"To me, this is the beginning of Maud's story. There's a much bigger art world out there that still has to discover Maud Lewis, or even consider finding a piece to add to their collection. I probably won't live to see her work go international, but I think she's certainly got the potential of the work being shown with other great folk-art artists, especially in the United States."
Maud Lewis gets 'folked'
Laurie Dalton did her master's degree on how Nova Scotia "folked" Maud Lewis and holds a PhD in Canadian studies. She's the longtime curator of Acadia University's art gallery and staged a solo Lewis show in 2018. Her new book, Painted Worlds, offers a critical perspective on Lewis's art.
She says Lewis has long been dismissed as "folk art," as though she were merely a craftsperson churning out curiosities, rather than an important figure in the general history of art.
"A lot of the ways we talk about modern artists — say questions of colour, questions of painterly techniques, or questions of seriality — why can't we use those to explore the work of Maud Lewis?" she asks.
Dalton notes how Lewis's custom of returning to the three black cats, or Digby Gut, or the oxen, is dismissed as a byproduct of her sheltered life. But when Andy Warhol repeats a can of soup, it's understood as a choice to explore a topic through serialization.
"I think Maud Lewis was doing that as well," Dalton says.
And while Lewis never left Nova Scotia, the rest of the world rushed to her tiny house in the form of the magazines, ads, packaging and calendars seen strewn about in her home.
"She was not only drawing inspiration from the landscape, but also drawing inspiration from pop culture and then distilling that in her unique language, and in a way that I think is really exciting."
Dalton made an exciting discovery out of the 2018 solo show. She told the audience how she'd mined the archives, page by page, year by year, looking for the images that Lewis looked at and decided to put her own touch on. One person in the audience later sent her a Fort Erie, Ont., train ad and Dalton found it had directly influenced several of Lewis's paintings.
"And it challenges and betrays some of the narration around her: that she was unskilled, that she was untrained, that she didn't travel anywhere. But it forgets that she's surrounded by all of this pop culture material."
Dalton points to Horse in Winter (Lewis rarely named her paintings, so most titles are descriptive), noting how the colours are filled with intent. "They create a certain movement through the piece, so they actually help your eye go through the piece. They also create lights and shadows in the piece."
There are shadows in Lewis's world after all.
"I think we need to explore Maud Lewises much more as objects of art, because often the discussion around her has rested on her as a symbol of the rural poor, or as a way to market the province," she says.
Dalton says the British art world is discovering Lewis now, which could be another factor in her remarkable 2021. A spring exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery explores the artist's studio, and it puts Lewis's name alongside Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Tracy Emin.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia plans to give her pride of place at its $130-million waterfront gallery when it opens in a few years, which will bring even more eyes to her paintings.
So when will Maud Lewis break $100,000? Not today. Brown sold Sandy Cove within 24 hours of buying it. He didn't break the record, but he's happy with the modest sale.
"My painting that I just sold for $55,000 would have been a record just 12 months ago, but now it's not," he says.
But the next one might be. Brown just bought a Maud Lewis from the family of her doctor in Digby, and it's unlike any other he's seen. He's accepting offers now.
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