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London, Ont. couple auction off painting by Canadian artist Maud Lewis

Irene and Tony Demas with the Maud Lewis painting they have had for nearly 50 years after acquiring it through a regular customer at their London, Ont., restaurant the Villa. Irene Demas

A Maud Lewis painting once traded for a grilled cheese sandwich at a London, Ont., restaurant nearly 50 years ago is expected to receive nearly $35,000 at an upcoming auction.

Irene and Tony Demas, owners of the former Villa restaurant on Richmond Street, renamed Anthony’s Seafood Bistro after their son and opened their doors in the early 1970’s.

“We both had very little experience in the restaurant business,” said Irene Demas. “But it all worked out in the end as we managed to stay in business and open five other restaurants.”

Navigating through initial staffing struggles, Irene attended culinary school at Fanshawe College to help manage the rising influx of customers.

“Over the years, we’ve met some wonderful people that came through the door,” said Demas.

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One of those people was London artist John Kinnear. According to Demas, “They had a favourite table at the front of the restaurant, and they would walk over almost every day for lunch.”

In wanting art for the walls of their restaurant, the Demas and Kinnears reached a deal to have his artwork be used as payment for meals. Demas said that it was almost always a grilled cheese sandwich.

“But one day he showed up with different kinds of paintings,” explained Demas. “I came out from the kitchen and the paintings were all scattered along the table and at first, I thought they were painted by a child. John proceeded to tell me otherwise.”

London, Ont., artist John Kinnear’s painting of Irene and Tony Demas restaurant the Villa on Richmond Street in the 1970’s. Irene Demas

In the early 1960s, Kinnear had taken a trip out to the East Coast where he was first introduced to Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

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Born in 1903, Lewis suffered from a series of birth defects that left her shoulders hunched, chin pressed into her chest and her fingers painfully distorted.

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, she spent most of her life in a cramped one-room house that had no running water or electricity.

“Kinnear told us how poor she was,” said Demas. “She didn’t have the right boards to paint on and would even use leftover paint given to her by fishermen who didn’t need it for their boats.”

Demas went on to say that Kinnear had sent Lewis supplies in wanting to help the struggling artist sell her paintings in Ontario. In return, Lewis sent Kinnear an array of artwork as well as two handwritten letters of gratitude. A gesture that was hard to come by, according to Demas.

In 1970, at the age of 67, Lewis died in hospital due to contracted pneumonia caused by prolonged exposure to paint fumes and wood smoke, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

“Her painting of this black pickup truck really caught my eye,” said Demas. “I was pregnant at the time and I thought, if we had a boy, we could hang it in his room and it would be lovely.”

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Just as she seemingly planned, Demas hung the painting in her son’s room until he went off to university. However, to her surprise, the painting remains one of Lewis’s rarest pieces of work.

Demas said that, over the years, she and her husband had become quite the collectors of various trinkets, ranging even outside of the art world. Now, and in the process of moving into a smaller home, the Demas’s decided to auction off some of their possessions, unaware of their value.

“We contacted Ethan Miller of Miller & Miller Auctions as asked him to take a look at our Maud Lewis painting,” said Demas. “His eyes lit up and from what I’ve discovered, Maud had only ever done two paintings of a black pickup truck. None of which had surfaced until now.”

With the encouragement of her children, the painting as well as the two hand-written letters from Lewis to Kinnear are set to go up for auction on May 14.

“Both our kids encouraged us to put it up for sale and use the money to enjoy the rest of our lives,” said Demas. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

From the 2017 movie Maudie inspired by Lewis’s life, the value of her work has risen considerably over the years. With an estimated value of $35,000 for the painting provided by the Demas, Lewis’s work has sold for as high as $65,000 in the past.

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