Maud Lewis

Lobsterman by Maud Lewis (1901-1970).

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Her naive style, often created with crude materials, has endeared her with generations of art collectors worldwide.

But it wasn't always so. Living impoverished on the Canadian island-province of Nova Scotia, Lewis toiled in obscurity for years, selling handmade greeting cards and paintings for tiny sums of money — enough to keep funding her passion.

Only in the mid-1960s did Lewis begin to gain attention after profiles by the Canadian print and television media. She would pass away in 1970 just as her fame was growing.

Hundreds of miles to the west, artist John Kinnear saw the early profiles of Lewis and soon befriended the artist, sending her paint and boards to help further her career. In return Lewis would send finished paintings to Kinnear's London, Ontario studio, where he would proudly hang (and often, sell) them.

One painting Kinnear did not sell was The Lobsterman, an endearing work showing a waterfront scene with a pipe-smoking figure holding a bucket of lobsters dockside near a group of traps. Painted in 1967, the work became a favorite of Kinnear's and occupied a prominent, not-for-sale position in his gallery.

John Ellington

John Ellington.

Fast-forward to the early 1970s. Kinnear, always a natty dresser in flowing long coats and scarves befitting his artistic demeanor, strolled into a nearby jewelry store operated by goldsmith John Ellington. Kinnear immediately spotted a blue sapphire-accented tie tack and struck up a conversation about acquiring it. Realizing Kinnear's financial situation despite his proud presentation, Ellington suggested a trade — the tie tack for a painting. Kinnear agreed, stating "any" painting would be a worthy swap.

Ellington walked into Kinnear's studio to finalize the trade, and immediately pointed to The Lobsterman. "Oh, no, that's my favorite!" exclaimed Kinnear, but as Ellington reminded him, a deal's a deal and he had said "any" painting. Kinnear relented and the trade was completed.

Maud Lewis is now internationally renowned. Having enjoyed the work in his home for decades, John Ellington gauged the market and decided to consign The Lobsterman to auction at Canadian folk art specialists Miller & Miller Auctions of New Hamburg, Ontario. Co-owner Ethan Miller has sold dozens of Maud Lewis originals, but was floored by the work, immediately calling in Lewis expert Alan Deacon for further evaluation.

They determine that unlike Lewis' "serial" style of painting — where she would paint the same figures, structures and landscapes repeatedly — no other known Lewis work has featured The Lobsterman's subject matter or style, making it completely unique. When the hammer finally fell on October 14, The Lobsterman took CA$45,000 (£26,840) or £32,800 including buyer's premium, a princely sum compared to the original tie tack that made the entire experience possible.