A hunch led an Oxfordshire antiques expert to believe a set of paintings found in a Banbury home could be something special – and his research sparked an international bidding battle.
The four oil on board artworks turned out to be by renowned Canadian folk artist Maud Kathleen Lewis. Consequently, Jasper Marsh’s detective work paid off, sparking intense competition under the hammer.
The paintings, which were boxed up and had been in the family for 70 years, went to auction with a modest estimate of £100-£200 each. They sold for a combined total of £36,000 and two of the paintings are being repatriated to their homeland after being purchased by Canadian buyers.
Maud Lewis is so revered in her home country, her work featured on Canada’s 2020 Christmas postage stamps. She’s inspired several books, plays and films and her work is on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Mr Marsh, valuer at Hanson Holloway’s Ross in Parson’s Street, Banbury, said: “I was called to value some items at a house in Banbury. The paintings were boxed up. My client was moving house and having a sort out. She had no idea the paintings were worth anything. She inherited them from her grandfather. He was born in Canada but came to England to work in the Diplomatic Service. He eventually became a British citizen and travelled the world, adding to his art collection as he went.
“When I saw these almost childlike oils, I had a hunch that they were either worth nothing or could potentially be good things. As the family had a Canadian connection and the subject matter resembled that part of the world, I took a punt with only the signed name ‘Lewis’ to go on.
Jasper Marsh with two of the paintings.
“I contacted Sotheby’s in Ontario who had previously sold her work and they kindly put me in touch with a gallery which had exhibited Maud’s paintings. I did quite a bit of spade work. The news was good and I was hopeful the paintings would do well.
“However, the intensity of the auction took me by surprise. The final bidding was largely fought out between an internet buyer and a telephone bidder. It’s nice to think that part of this collection will be returning to Canada. The overwhelming majority of interest on sale day came from Canada. My detective work paid off.
“It’s so lovely finding something like this and getting that hunch that they could be special. The paintings had been in the family for around 70 years. The vendor was chuffed to bits with the auction result and sent a really lovely email.”
The top-selling Maud Lewis painting, lot 201, a late summer landscape with single boat, sold for £10,000. It was closely followed by lot 200, a figure in a horse-drawn sleigh in a wintry landscape, £9,500.
Bidding was also strong for lot 198, a fisherman seated on a harbour wall, £9,400, and lot 199, a woodland scene featuring a lumberjack felling a tree and reindeer hauling logs, £7,400.
Maud Lewis (1903-1970) lived most of her life in poverty in a one-room house in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. She was born with birth defects and developed rheumatoid arthritis, which reduced her mobility, especially in her hands. She was introduced to art by her mother, who asked her to make watercolour Christmas cards to sell.
She accompanied her husband on his daily rounds peddling fish door-to-door and selling Christmas cards for five cents each. They proved popular and she began painting. This included adorning nearly every surface in her tiny home - walls, doors, breadboxes, and even the stove.
She used bright colours and subjects were often flowers or animals, including horses, birds, deer, or cats. Many of her paintings show outdoor scenes, including Cape Island boats bobbing on the water or horses pulling a sleigh. She was inspired by childhood memories of the Canadian landscape and people.
Charles Hanson, owner of Hanson Holloway’s Ross, said: “The Maud Lewis paintings discovered in Banbury proved to be classic examples of her work. They capture those Canadian scenes she knew so well. It was an incredible discovery. Important finds like these continue to emerge unexpectedly and it’s always a joy to help them achieve their true worth at auction.”
The Maud Lewis paintings were sold at Hanson Holloway’s Ross May 1 auction. Items are now invited for entry the firm’s June 5 and July sales. Free valuations are available every Thursday, 10am-4pm, by appointment at Hanson Holloway’s Ross, 49 Parsons Street, Banbury, OX16 5NB. To book, call 01295 817777 or email [email protected].