A Maud Lewis Painting Once Traded for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Fetches a Sizzling 10 Times Its Estimate at Auction

The work set a new record for the Canadian folk artist.

Maud Lewis, Untitled (late 1960s). Photo: Jon Dunford.

The Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis never sold a work for more than $10 during her lifetime. But on May 14 at an Ontario auction, one of her paintings fetched C$350,000 ($272,000), more than ten times its high estimate—thanks, in part, to its colorful backstory. 

The sale, at Miller and Miller, of the work known as Black Truck (1967)an oil on Masonite awash in yellows and greens, depicting a man in a red hat driving along a country road—has set a new high mark for a painter who, despite having grown up in poverty, has surged in popularity in recent years. 

Born in Nova Scotia in 1903, Lewis led a life marked by hardship. A self-taught artist who eschewed the art world, her work has in recent years come to embody a quintessential Canadian-ness, adorning the likes of everything from aprons to mugs. 

While Lewis achieved a degree of national notoriety after a Star Weekly article about her work in 1964, she died in 1970 and did not receive international acclaim until decades later. Her attention to the rhythms of pastoral life are now prized by some of the country’s leading museums and institutions, including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where a significant portion of her art is now stored. 

The story behind Black Truck is similarly fabled. The British artist John Kinnear befriended Lewis while she was schlepping her art on the side of a highway in the 1960s. During this period, the effects of rheumatoid arthritis were taking a toll on Lewis’s body, and Kinnear supported her art-making by sending her materials like paint. Lewis in turn gifted him numerous canvases, including Black Truck, which Kinnear ultimately bartered for grilled-cheese sandwiches at a London, Ontario, restaurant called The Villa.

Irene Demas, one half of the husband-and-wife duo who owned The Villa and put the picture up for auction, told the Guardian in an email this week she was in “disbelief” at the sale, though she added that her sandwiches were no slapdash affair: “Mind you, it wasn’t just an ordinary grilled cheese. It was a great sandwich, with a five-year-old cheddar and beautiful bread.”

Alongside Black Truck, the Miller and Miller also sold a lot of three handwritten letters from Lewis, thanking Kinnear for his kindness and support. They fetched C$70,000 ($55,000), shattering their high estimate of C$5,000 ($4,000). 

“In a time of great turmoil and change, the art world lived vicariously through Maud Lewis, her story, and her art,” Ethan Miller, head of the Ontario auction house, said in a statement after the sale. 

Prior to last week’s auction, the previous auction record for a work by Lewis was C$67,250 ($52,000). 

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