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.