It’s a garage sale junkie’s dream: to find hidden art treasures at bargain basement prices.
And that’s what happened to one Vancouver bargain hunter and amateur art connoisseur who bought what he believed to be paintings by two iconic members of the Group of Seven — Tom Thomson and Frederick Varley.
The bargain hunter, who doesn’t want to be identified, bought the paintings at a garage sale for $100, convinced they were legitimate. He then took the two paintings — one a watercolour, the other an oil on panel — to Maynards fine art and antiques auction house earlier this year for authentication.
When Kate Bellringer, director of Canadian and contemporary art, took a look at them she was initially skeptical. “We get a lot of people at Maynards who come in with things they’ve found,” she explained in an interview with the Toronto Star. Nevertheless, each piece has to be looked at and examined and researched.
Bellringer began by taking the paintings to local experts for reaction. They came back with the same opinion: the paintings seemed to be authentic.
Then she consulted experts across Canada and flew to Toronto to have the paintings examined by an expert here. The conclusion was the same: the paintings appeared to be legitimate.
“It took two months to make sure they were real,” she said. “But it’s very exciting for us.”
Now, the paintings are to be auctioned off on May 16th.
The Thomson is valued at $150,000 to $250,000 while the Varley is valued at a more conservative $4,000 to $6,000.
The prices are on the conservative side because the auction house doesn’t know the provenance (the history of ownership) of the paintings.
That doesn’t take away from their artistic value. The Varley is a watercolour done in 1901 and depicts a cityscape of his hometown of Sheffield in England. It was likely painted when Varley was on vacation from studying art in Antwerp, Belgium, Bellringer said.
“It’s an early example of his work before he became the Varley we know. It’s him as a young painter.”
The Thomson oil painting of a sunrise over a lake in Algonquin Park was likely done in the spring or summer of 1915, said Bellringer.
“Thomson only painted for a brief period from about 1912 or 1913 to his untimely demise.”
The period of 1915 to 1917 is believed to be Thomson’s prime years for painting.
This painting is clearly from a “turning point in his style,” said Bellringer. It is vibrant with peachy colours, pale purples and blues in the sky, Bellringer said.
“The sky looks like it is coming awake. Because there is no foreground in the painting, I believe he painted this in his canoe.”
The Thomson was quite dirty when it was bought and has been cleaned by a conservator since then. Initially you didn’t see any of the colours, Bellringer said.
And the signature was difficult to make out. Part of it was missing — partially because of the dirt, and also because Bellringer believes a previous attempt at cleaning it had removed some of the signature.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with these paintings and looking at these paintings and I personally do think they’re beautiful,” she said.
The news that Maynard has two Group of Sevens on the auction block has prompted many inquiries, Bellringer said.
“We’ve had a lot of people call and come in to see the paintings.”
How that interest will translate when the painting is auctioned off is anyone’s guess.
But Bellringer points out the most expensive Tom Thomson went for over $2 million. “This one, if it had come in and had the proper provenance, I would have priced it at around $600,000.”
The find and the news of the auction has also triggered hundreds of phone calls from people who have found things at garage sales — all of them convinced they’re sitting on a fortune in undiscovered art and antiques.
So Bellringer will be busy over the next few months taking a look at these hopeful finds and evaluating them.
“It’s exciting to think there may be more Tom Thomsons out there for an average person to find.”