The Heffel art auction sells paintings consigned from all over Canada, the U.S. and even Europe.
Still, they didn’t expect a previously unknown Tom Thomson painting to turn up in Vernon.
Marit Mayne contacted the Vancouver gallery last August about the small, vibrant painting, which she had received as a 70th birthday gift from her longtime friend from nursing school, Glenna Gardiner.
“As a gag,” laughs Glenna, 71.
Glenna had inherited the painting from her father Jack, a United Church minister who was a bit of a joker.
“Dad always said it was a Tom Thomson, but I never really believed him, because he was prone to tell stories, just to tell a good story,” she said.
She initially hung it up in her home in Edmonton, but as time passed “there didn’t seem to be a place for it, so it got stuck with a whole bunch of other paintings in a pile on a table.”
Marit came out for a visit and they decided to sort through Glenna’s pile of paintings. And she instantly knew it was special.
“I said to Glenna it looked like it might be a good painting and she should have it valued or appraised,” said Marit.
“And on my 70th birthday, she mailed it to me. Actually, she mailed it to my daughter, and my daughter brought it to my birthday party.”
“It wasn’t the regular mail, I did send it UPS,” added Glenna.
“I really laughed about it,” said Marit, who’s now 71. “She said (in the note) if it’s worth something we’ll go on a trip. But otherwise it’s yours, you’re the only one that has any interest in it.”
A year later an artist friend from Norway visited Marit and encouraged her to get the painting appraised. So she phoned the Heffel Gallery, which is Canada’s premier art auctioneer.
“I talked to somebody and they said send a photo, we get people who say they have Tom Thomsons all the time,” said Marit. “They phoned me back within two hours: ‘It looks like it has promise.’”
Heffel’s Lauren Kratzer picks up the story.
“When she sent the images we thought ‘Oh wow, this looks pretty darn good,’” said Kratzer.
“The next thing we did was look at the online catalogue raisonee (listing all Thomson paintings) that Joan Murray put together. We weren’t able to find this painting, but we did find a major canvas in the National Gallery of Canada of this exact same subject matter. So that sent alarm bells ringing.”
Marit brought the painting to Vancouver and Robert Heffel carefully removed a label that was attached to the back. Underneath was an inscription, “Painted by Tom Thomson, 1912 or 13. Given to T.M. 1915. Thoreau MacDonald.”
“He looked like Christmas had come,” said Marit. “There was really a sparkle in his eye when he saw that.”
“We looked at the front and said ‘Wow, this is very good,’” said Heffel. “But then we saw the back and it had the history and the provenance.”
And what provenance there was. Thoreau MacDonald was the son of painter J.E.H. MacDonald, one of the Group of Seven. Thomson painted Thoreau’s portrait in 1914.
For further authentication, the painting was sent to Charles Hill, the former curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada.
“His response to us was ‘congratulations,’” said Heffel.
Hill was able to shed some further light on the provenance. The painting is signed on the back “To Jack Gardiner as a meagre token of my great esteem, Emmanuel College, Toronto, March 1937, Jim Lawson.”
Lawson had tried to put together an art gallery for the college, which is part of the University of Toronto.
“But it never happened, so he disbanded the paintings,” said Heffel. “And one of the paintings he gave to Jack Gardiner, Glenna’s dad.”
Marit gave the painting back to Glenna, who has consigned it in the May 30 Heffel auction in Toronto. It will be part of a public preview from Saturday through Tuesday at the Heffel Gallery, 2247 Granville.
The lost Thomson painting is now titled Sketch for Lake in Algonquin Park because the larger canvas it was the study for is called Lake in Algonquin Park.
The pre-auction estimate is $125,000 to $175,000. This isn’t one of the big-ticket items in the sale — there is a stunning 1956 abstract by Paul-Emile Borduas, Figures schematiques, that is estimated at $3 million to $5 million. But as far as a story goes, it can’t be beaten.
Glenna and Marit are coming to Vancouver this weekend for the 50th reunion of their nursing class from Vancouver General Hospital. They plan to visit the painting Monday.
What is Glenna going to do with the money when the painting is sold?
“We’re going to go on a cruise of the Mediterranean,” said Glenna.
“Marit’s husband wanted to come, and we said he could come if he carried our luggage.”
By John Mackie, Postmedia News