Hidden gems in local thrift stores


  • Feature   Wed, Jun 30th, 2021   Nancy Silcox
This painting, an authentic Maud Lewis, was found in the MCC New Hamburg thrift store in 2017. The MCC eventually auctioned off the piece for $45,000, with all the proceeds going to the organization's relief work in Africa.


This painting, an authentic Maud Lewis, was found in the MCC New Hamburg thrift store in 2017. The MCC eventually auctioned off the piece for $45,000, with all the proceeds going to the organization's relief work in Africa.


Call it nostalgia that saw this writer, recently on a mission, braving traffic mayhem into the core of Toronto. An unpretentious 10-inch by 12-inch painting by the late pop icon David Bowie, found at a rural Ontario Thrift Store, was up for auction at a Toronto auction house.
With bidding reaching $75,000, this art lover wanted to have an in-person gander.
The work had been purchased for $5 by a bargain-hunting patron in a Thrift Store, outside a landfill site in South River village, near North Bay.
Curious about the signature, which indicated the painter was pop star David Bowie, the purchaser contacted the fine art auction house, Cowley Abbott in Toronto.
Due diligence by the auction house verified the signature as an authentic Bowie.
It seems that Bowie had created approximately 40 similar works in a series called DHeads. This particular work, D Head XLVI had been sold some years before on a Bowie online web page for around $4,000.
The route between this initial sale and its Northern Ontario landfill demise remains unknown.
For this writer (and art-lover), the Bowie hoopla brought back sweet 2017 memories of another treasure hunt—this one at the local New Hamburg Thrift Centre.
In late 2016, an 11" by 13" painting by Maritime folk artist Maud Lewis, titled "Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fishermen, Bay View, N.S." had been uncovered by a sharp-eyed volunteer sorting donated pictures to be put up for sale at the local store.
The volunteer spotted the childish image of a tug boat coming into the harbour, being encircled by larger-than-life seagulls. He'd pulled it from a discard bin at the store.
Aware of Lewis' childlike style, the volunteer reported the find to Thrift Store staff and suggested verification be sought.
Judged by art experts as an authentic Lewis, it carried the usual Lewis hallmarks—vivid colours, executed on chipboard with improbable perspective and the childlike LEWIS signature.
Thought to have been painted by the artist around 1970 in her trademark naif style, initial evaluation placed the painting at around $16,000.
Over the coming months, as the brain trust at MCC Ontario judged the best course of action for the painting, media coverage of the find was unrelenting.
Calls from both print and electronic media deluged both the New Hamburg store, as well as the finder of the treasure. "Rare Maud Lewis Painting found in Thrift Store," trumpeted CTV, with The National Post announcing "Lost Maud Lewis Painting found in New Hamburg Thrift Store."
As MCC plans for the sale of the painting were fine-tuned, media frenzy and public interest were fuelled by the release of the 2017 biopic Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.
A modestly-budgeted Canadian production, the film benefitted significantly from the Thrift Store Maud hoopla.
A conversation that this writer had at the time with Maudie Director Aisling Walsh confirmed the serendipity. "Oh, on the set we were all aware of the painting being found and we followed the news avidly," admitted Walsh.
MCC Ontario put the painting up for auction in April 2017, with all proceeds going to the organization's relief work in Africa. The bidding sped up to $125,000 within two days. Then, bidding was halted abruptly when at least one of the bidders proved fraudulent.
Eventually auctioned for $45,000, more than three times its estimate, Maud Lewis' Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fishermen, Bay View, N.S." found its new home with a Calgary art collector.
Valuable art, it seems, has a habit of finding its way to the so-called "Queen of Thrift Stores" in New Hamburg.
Production Manager Christa Gerber recalls the arrival of a rare "Tramp Art" carved box. Judged too valuable to price, store staff put the treasure into auction format. It fetched a handsome three-figure sum.
New Hamburg Thrift Centre Manager Mark Padfield calls up a curious four-foot high wood and papier-mache sculpture of several years past. Donated to the Elmira Thrift Store, it sold for over $1,000. "Most people had told us it was garbage; we decided to check, and it was definitely not," he recalls, with a laugh.
Louis Silcox, a long-time volunteer at the local Thrift Store and finder of the Maud Lewis, has fair knowledge of Canadian art. Silcox has uncovered a number of finds since "the Great Maud Lewis" caper. They include works by Indigenous artists Richard Bedwash, Carl Beam and Carl Ray.
A rare moose hair tufting miniature box by an unknown Indigenous craft artist has also emerged from the thousands of donations that pass by volunteer sorters each week.
Modern Canadian artists William Perehudoff and local painter Peter Etril Snyder have also come to light.
Rare finds in unconventional places such as community Thrift Stores capture the public's imagination, says Cowley Abbott President Rob Cowley.
"It's a phenomenon we call the Hollywood Effect, when there is a famous name attached, or when there is an extraordinary set of circumstances such as rarity or human-interest story behind the artwork."
All in all, good for business, good for staff and community morale.