Many of us harbour the small hope that some heirloom we have squirreled away may one day be worth thousands of dollars—though in the art world, explains Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s Robert Heffel, such discoveries are highly unusual. “We get phone calls all the time with paintings purported to be by Group of Seven artists, Emily Carr, what have you, it’s very rare it turns out to be authentic,” he says. Yet in August 2017, Heffel Auction House received a call from Vernon, B.C. resident Merit Mayne that has proven deeply exciting. It turns out the painting Mayne sought to have identified—a“gag” gift from lifelong friend Glenna Gardiner given on the occasion of Mayne’s 70th birthday—is in fact an exceedingly rare Tom Thomson painting.
“We get phone calls all the time with paintings purported to be by Group of Seven artists, Emily Carr, what have you, it’s very rare it turns out to be authentic,” says Robert Heffel.
“Tom Thomsons are rare to the market as is,” says Heffel of the artist, who died in 1917 at age 39 in a mysterious canoe accident. “But this picture looked quite promising, it had all the characteristics of Thomson—it had a sort of paper backing we carefully removed and that’s when we knew it was a Thomson, there was writing on the back… It had the provenance written on the back of the painting.” The text traced the painting’s history being passed down, first to the son of one of Thomson’s peers, then to a man seeking to open a gallery at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College, and ultimately to Gardiner’s father. The Heffel team further consulted the Canadian Conservation Institute and former curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada Charlie Hill, discovering the use of a certain type of pigment—Freeman’s White—only ever found in paintings by Thomson and the Group of Seven before 1920.
Gardiner’s father had always said the painting—which depicts a lake in Algonquin Park—was a Thomson, but according to Heffel, “She said she never believed her father—she said he was a bit of a joker. She always felt only really wealthy families would have a famous painting—she never believed it was a Thomson.” Now that the painting has been identified, Mayne has returned it to Gardiner. The painting is estimated to fetch $175,000 at auction in Toronto on May 30. To celebrate, Mayne and Gardiner are taking a Mediterranean cruise.
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