Three rare Maud Lewis paintings up for auction in Saint John have sold for well above their estimated values.
They also attracted interest — and bids — from all over North America, said Sarah Jones, co-owner of Jones Auction House in Saint John.
Jones expected each to sell for between $25,000 and $35,000, but the final sale prices were far higher — between between $46,000 and $66,700.
Jones said it’s rare to see Lewis’s early work at auction.
She suspects there are a number of reasons for that, including the material Lewis used for her paintings. In the early years, the artist often used beaverboard, a building material made of pressed wood fibres, that was like a rugged type of cardboard.
Jones said the material doesn’t always hold up well over time.
“It’s actually really fragile, and so it doesn’t stand up well to moisture or any kind of nicks and dings. It’s just really easily lost or destroyed. And so it’s just possible that they’ve been thrown away or lost or, like in this case, just kind of hidden away.”
With the help of a Nova Scotia-based expert, Jones said the paintings are believed to have been painted by the celebrated artist in the 1940s.
Jones said her auction house was contacted by a man from New York state, whose relative bought the three paintings directly from Lewis in the 1940s, while travelling through Nova Scotia.
“They’ve been kind of tucked away in a box for decades and more or less forgotten about and then just kind of unearthed recently,” said Jones.
Lewis is a Nova Scotia artist born who was born in 1903 and died in 1970, when most of her commissioned paintings were selling for $5 or $10 each. Some of those are now worth tens of thousands of dollars.
They’re a seller’s windfall, but they also now come with added responsibility, thanks to forgers trying to cash in on Lewis’s popularity.
Alan Deacon has been separating the Mauds from the frauds for decades and helped Jones authenticate the paintings.
Deacon — who always declines to share his trade secrets for fear of telling forgers how to improve their game — said it’s rare to see the early work at auction.
He estimates these paintings were likely done in the mid-1940s, a time when Lewis’s work was usually “much more detailed” than later in her career.
Perhaps as a result of the paint she used, her early work seems more “vibrant” as well, said Deacon.
He said the three are “remarkable” examples of her early work, but he’s partial to Oxen Pulling Red Cart in Fall.
“I thought that was a fantastic painting,” he said.
While it’s a serial image, meaning there are other ones like it, Deacon said this particular version is “one of the best Maud Lewis paintings I’ve ever seen.”
Like many others with original Maud Lewis work, Deacon bought his first two directly from the artist in the 1960s at the road-side cottage where she lived until her death. He paid $10 for each one.
For decades, Lewis was paid next-to-nothing for her work.
That’s why Deacon is pleased to see her work gaining in popularity and value.
“I’m pleased that they sold well, and they deserve to sell well. I mean … she died in ’70, so it’s taken 53 years for prices to get up into the range that they are now.”
Deacon said it’s likely the original buyer only paid $1 or $2 each for paintings that have now fetched a total of $159,150.
Deacon and Jones both say Lewis’s style changed over the years — a result, at least in part, of better access to material and increased demand for her work.
While more detailed in her earlier work, she became much more prolific later in her later years, said Jones, which helps explains why there are more examples of her later work.
“These three paintings offer incredible insight into Lewis’s evolving technique and approach,” said Jones.
Two Oxen Sold for $46,000 to a bidder from the northeastern United States.
Jones said pairs of oxen are a common theme in Lewis’s work, but this one shows more elaborate details, including in the head yoke.
“This one is quite special,” said Jones. “The ornamentation is different on the oxen.”
She said Lewis often used different kinds of paint throughout her career — often whatever was available to her — and occasionally leftover house paint that other people gave her.
In the case of Two Oxen, she used a metallic-gold paint for the head yoke and the bell.
Horses Plowing Field in Fall
Horses Plowing Field in Fall had the highest bid and went to a Canadian bidder for $66,700.
Jones said horses aren’t as common in Lewis’s work — and certainly not as common as the iconic oxen and black cats.
Deacon said astute observers may notice that the horses are plowing an already-plowed field.
Oxen Pulling Red Cart in Fall
Oxen Pulling Red Cart in Fall was sold to a Canadian bidder for $47,150.
Deacon said he’s seen other versions of this scene, “but I’ve never seen anything where she’s had those oxen really coming [toward] the viewer.”
He said “the angle she’s got, everything — I think was just amazing.”