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The Painting Paid for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches 50 Years Ago – Now Earns the Restaurant Thousands


Jon Dunford, Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd

When John Kinnear bought a selection of paintings for an impoverished Nova Scotia painter, his chief hope was that they might buy him a grilled cheese sandwich.

His favorite diner in London, Ontario made an unforgettable grilled cheese, with five-year old cheddar and freshly baked bread. Maybe if they liked one of the paintings he could secure a series of sandwiches on the house.

Now 50 years later, that trade has secured Irene and Tony Demas, the married couple running the diner, a small fortune, as the paintings were made by the now-acclaimed folk painter Maud Lewis and sold some weeks ago for a quarter of a million dollars.

50 years ago, Irene and Tony hoped one day to convince their regular customer Mr. Kinnear to try something other than the grilled cheese, but not only did they fail in that regard, they found themselves making a deal for free grilled cheeses in the future.

Irene had learned that bartering than dealing with money was better in many circumstances, and traded food from her restaurant out to other merchants and professionals. So when Mr. Kinnear arrived one day for his customary sandwich carrying with him a selection of paintings, it wasn’t a big deal to make a swap.

One painting stood out to the pregnant Mrs. Demas—a cheery painting of a black pick-up truck going down a neighborhood road, which she thought would look great on her son’s bedroom wall.

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“I just sat there in silence for quite a while. I’d never ever seen any art like that before,” Demas remembered, telling the Guardian. “At first I thought they might be playing some sort of trick on me, did a kid do some of these?”

Using leftover paint that fishermen would use to paint their boats, and whatever wooden boards were of clean enough condition to paint on, Maud Lewis, a poor artist whose acclaim has grown hugely since her death in 1970, painted many works throughout her difficult life.

Ron Cogswell, CC license

In return for some painting supplies, Mr. Kinnear received some of her paintings after he felt sorry for her.

After news of her fame and the soaring value of her works reached the Demases, their children encouraged them to auction off the painting that hung in their bedroom for all their childhood.

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“My husband’s 90 and I don’t think I have another 50 years to hang on to it,” said Mrs. Demas, before the sale. “The kids are saying, use the money and travel and just enjoy life.”

The sale fetched $273,000 ($350,000 CAD) which should be enough for some serious enjoyment, or at least a lifetime’s supply of grilled cheeses.

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