It’s not every day that some cheese melted between two slices of toasted bread can buy you a rare painting.
But for Irene and Tony Demas, that is exactly what happened one fateful day in the 1970s.
That same painting, paid for with some grilled cheese sandwiches, is expected to sell for tens of thousands when it hits Miller & Miller’s auction block in mid-May.
And the Star may have played a tiny role in this tasty exchange.
Irene and Tony Demas, owners of a London, Ont. restaurant in the 1970s, bartered for everything.
From jewelry to furniture, the owners of The Villa enjoyed a good trade. In the 1970s, The Villa used to have a slogan: “You come in once as a customer, you become a lifelong friend.”
It was true, especially for the late John Kinnear, an English painter and Second World War veteran who loved a grilled cheese sandwich.
It was all he ate at The Villa, where he and his wife would settle in every day for lunch at their favourite table by the window, Irene told the Star. On the rare occasion, he’d ask to add bacon to the sandwich, Irene remembered, but he didn’t experiment beyond that.
He did, however, experiment with his art, and often brought the couple paintings he’d created in hopes they’d barter with him. Times were tough and the arrangement suited them both: the Demas family picked up some decor for their walls and the Kinnears got some grub.
One day, Kinnear brought the couple some — according to Irene — “childlike” paintings.
Kinner had learned of Maud Lewis — a now renowned folk artist — in 1965 through a story he read in the Star Weekly, a Sunday publication founded by Joseph E. Atkinson, the long-time publisher of the Toronto Star.
“The Little Old Lady Who Painted Pretty Pictures,” was the story that ran in the Canadian publication about the self-taught painter. After reading about her lack of reliable supplies and worsening rheumatoid arthritis, often using untreated boards that would warp or peel, Kinnear began sending Lewis proper art supplies — Masonite boards, sable brushes and paint.
In gratitude, Lewis sent him some of her paintings and even penned letters detailing how roadside buyers would snatch up her artwork before it had time to dry.
So Kinnear, with a handful of the paintings Lewis sent him in tow, headed to his favourite table at The Villa.
“My husband called me out of the kitchen and said ‘John’s got these really interesting paintings, come and have a look,’” Irene recalled.
“I didn’t like any of them, to tell you the truth,” Irene, who was pregnant at the time, said of the artwork full of cats, cows and rural landscapes.
She reluctantly selected a painting of a black truck with a man inside driving along a paved road with a red-roofed building in the background. In exchange, Irene and Tony gave him some free grilled cheese sandwiches.
“I thought, well, we’re going to have a boy, so we can have this in the baby’s room,” Irene mused.
They made the deal, and the Lewis painting lived in their son’s room for years. It is now displayed in their guest bedroom.
Alan Deacon, an expert on Lewis, authenticated the paintings. Deacon said Lewis painted many of the same subjects over the years, but only painted the black truck during the last five years of her life, making the one Irene and Tony own “quite rare.”
Experts say Lewis originally sold her paintings at the side of the road for $10. Her pieces have since skyrocketed in value, especially in recent years, both in Canada and globally. One of her works sold for more than $65,000 at auction.
Last year, two of her paintings sold in the U.K. for more than $100,000 combined. Miller & Miller, an auction company based in New Hamburg, Ont., is selling Irene and Tony’s Lewis painting of the black truck, as well as a few of Lewis’ letters. The auction house says that last year, they auctioned a Lewis painting for $22,000, nearly double the highest estimate.
So why have Irene and Tony decided to sell the painting now?
They were going to keep it for their grandchildren, said Irene, but their kids told them they would rather see their parents “enjoy the money” and let someone else enjoy the art. The couple is also auctioning some of those handwritten notes from Lewis to Kinnear.
And while she wasn’t a fan of the painting initially, Irene says she would do things a little differently if she had the chance.
“If I could only go back, you know, 40 some odd years, I’d have taken all of them.”
Until it sells, Irene will continue admiring the painting, recalling the memories of their “restaurant days and the wonderful people that we met.”
Ethan Miller of Miller & Miller Auctions says this Lewis piece is expected to fetch around $35,000. The artwork and the handwritten notes by Lewis will be up for auction on May 14.
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