The case of the lost and found Thom­son


What it is: A small oil-on-panel sketch by Tom Thom­son. Or maybe not.

A buyer who wishes to re­main anony­mous snagged this piece at a Van­cou­ver garage sale for $50. And yes, that’s a bit pricey by Win­nipeg garage-sale stan­dards, but it could prove to be a bar­gain when the paint­ing comes to auc­tion in May. May­nards Fine Art and An­tiques es­ti­mates it could bring in up to $250,000. (an early wa­ter­colour by Group of Seven mem­ber Fred­er­ick Var­ley, bought at the same garage sale for $50, is ex­pected to fetch be­tween $4,000 and $6,000.)

This is un­de­ni­ably a beau­ti­ful lit­tle land­scape sketch, with a brushy, dy­namic ren­der­ing of the sky and sub­tle tonal con­trasts.

But of course, that’s not what’s at is­sue here. For the art pro­fes­sion­als who have ex­am­ined the paint­ing, the real ques­tion is whether the sig­na­ture at the bot­tom of the picture — which seems to be blurred by over-clean­ing — can be con­nected to Canada’s most fa­mous artist.

Tom Thom­son cap­tured our na­tional imag­i­na­tion with his per­sona — he is seen as a rugged, silent and soli­tary out­doors­man — and with the brief burst of his hugely in­flu­en­tial paint­ing ca­reer. The fact that he died young and un­der still-dis­puted cir­cum­stances on Ca­noe Lake in 1917 just adds to his mys­tique.

What It Means: As sug­gested by two re­cent books that chron­i­cle the en­thu­si­as­tic ex­pert en­dorse­ment of du­bi­ous Van Goghs ( So­lar Dance) and Ver­meers ( The Forger’s Spell), art au­then­ti­ca­tion is not an ex­act sci­ence. All kinds of un­pre­dictable fac­tors can come into play — psy­cho­log­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and pro­fes­sional — and works once pro­nounced gen­uine will of­ten be ques­tioned later. Even a ma­jor mu­seum can find that its Rem­brandt has been down­graded to “School of Rem­brandt.”

There are also all sorts of things that can go wrong when the sup­pos­edly re­fined realm of art mixes it up with the grubby world of com­merce. In his book Hot Art, Toronto jour­nal­ist Joshua Knel­man writes about a Cana­dian who seems to be liv­ing the An­tiques Road­show dream — he scores a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar Gains­bor­ough at a Bri­tish flea mar­ket! — only to find him­self en­meshed in a le­gal and fi­nan­cial nightmare. Knel­man re­minds us that art is a huge global busi­ness, while re­main­ing the most un­reg­u­lated, least trans­par­ent mar­ket in the world.

Why It Mat­ters: Fa­mous paint­ings don’t nec­es­sar­ily start out as fa­mous paint­ings, and they can have mys­te­ri­ous, wan­der­ing, even per­ilous lives. Win­nifred Trainor, the woman many be­lieve was Thom­son’s fi­anceé at the time of his death, owned sev­eral of his paint­ings, which she wrapped in news­pa­pers and jammed into an old six-quart bas­ket. (They’d be worth about $20 mil­lion on to­day’s mar­ket.)

This case of what could be a lo­stand-found Thom­son work has made head­lines and drawn a lot of reg­u­lar peo­ple — es­pe­cially avid garage salers and Value Vil­lage shop­pers — into the high drama of the art world. And the drama prob­a­bly isn’t fin­ished: While sev­eral ex­perts are af­firm­ing this oil sketch as an au­then­tic Thom­son, Na­tional Gallery of Canada cu­ra­tor Charles Hill has seen the work and re­mains skep­ti­cal.

Art his­to­rian Ali­son Gill­mor looks be­neath the sur­face of news­wor­thy art.

My hus­band and I met 18 years ago and fell madly in love and have been happy ever since. I grew up very close with my fam­ily while his re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents (he’s an only child) was more de­tached. When he met me, his par­ents (his mother es­pe­cially) seemed to get re­ally in­tense about want­ing to see him all the time. I clearly felt their dis­ap­proval of me at our wed­ding. We were in our early 20s, and felt over­whelmed by their con­stant de­mands. Af­ter many years, we moved sev­eral hours away and life be­came some­what more tol­er­a­ble. In re­cent years we’ve had three chil­dren which has upped the ante and his par­ents have in­creased their de­mands again. The prob­lem is that they have no re­spect for us as peo­ple let alone as par­ents, and vis­its are very stress­ful. They don’t re­spect our kids’ boundaries ei­ther — they in­sist on hug­ging and hold­ing them against their will. There was a blow-up at Christ­mas time sev­eral years ago when we planned on trav­el­ling to their home on Box­ing Day. They were de­ter­mined to come here and my hus­band asked them not to. I was preg­nant with my third child, ex­hausted and sick. They ar­rived any­way be­fore Christ­mas and de­manded to be in­cluded in our plans. We have been to coun­selling for this. His folks went once — a dis­as­ter. There have been many other un­happy in­ci­dences. — Stuck, Out­side Win­nipeg.

Dear Stuck: Set your own boundaries and say to your hus­band, “I have one life to live and I’ve had enough years of strug­gling with your par­ents. They don’t like me and I don’t like them. Let’s ac­cept that. You are most wel­come to take the kids with you to visit your par­ents to­gether. With me out of the picture, you might have a good time, and I can stay home and re­lax with friends.” Use those week­ends to en­joy a spa night at your place, go out for din­ners, go shop­ping, pic­nics at the beach, see a movie, get your hair cut. Don’t stay home and brood, and don’t do house­work all week­end and feel re­sent­ful. Make to­tal use of the free time to have fun, or to go and stay with your par­ents and en­joy see­ing them on your own.

Bought at a Van­cou­ver garage sale, this may or may not be a long-lost Tom Thom­son paint­ing.

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