A Tom Thomson painting may have been mistakenly given away as a lighthearted gift, but the once-doubtful owner is not laughing now. Sketch for Lake in Algonquin Park was sold at auction in Toronto on Wednesday for $481,250, a sum that represents a wacky windfall for an Edmonton grandmother who had relegated the oil-on-canvas to her basement.
“I had no idea it would sell for such an amount,” said a shocked Glenna Gardiner, who followed the sale online from her home. “There was a bit of a pause early on in the bidding, but then it kept on going and going.”
Going and going and gone, actually, to an unknown buyer at Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s spring sell-off. The 1913 work, a smaller precursor to the full canvas, Lake in Algonquin Park, currently in the National Gallery of Canada, was expected to fetch $125,000 to $175,000. But after participation from a number of bidders, it went to nearly a half-million dollars, a development that caps an unlikely basement-to-penthouse ascension in the art world.
Thomson was an influential Group of Seven contemporary who died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 39 in 1917. His Sketch for Lake in Algonquin Park was long in the family of Ms. Gardiner, a minister’s daughter whose father, Jack Gardiner, was given the work in 1937 by Reverend James S. Lawson, one of his teachers at Toronto’s Emmanuel College. Although Ms. Gardiner’s father prized the painting, the rest of the family doubted its legitimacy.
“We thought it couldn’t be a Tom Thomson,” Ms. Gardiner, 71, told The Globe and Mail. “Tom Thomson was famous, and we didn’t have a lot of famous things around our house.”
When Mr. Gardiner died in 2000, Ms. Gardiner’s sister took some of his possessions to keep, but snubbed the Thomson, leaving it for Ms. Gardiner, who stuck it on a wall initially. After she moved to a new home, the painting ended up gathering dust in her basement. Explained Ms. Gardiner, a retired nurse, “I just couldn’t find the right place for it.”
The right place turned out to be in the hands of a friend to whom she gave the painting recently in a gesture that was meant to be lighthearted, but that turned out to be fortuitous. The friend, Marit Main of Vernon, B.C., had long appreciated the painting and was convinced it was the real deal.
Asked if she ever thought about having the painting appraised, Ms. Gardiner said she did. “I didn’t know where to go to have it done, though. But Marit kept after me about it, so I sent it to her.”
Such was Ms. Gardiner’s indifference for the painting that she actually put it in the mail as a birthday “gag” gift to her friend. Upon receipt, the optimistic Ms. Main contacted Heffel’s Vancouver office, where appraisal staff quickly determined the painting’s authenticity.
“It was quite dirty, and the varnish was discoloured,” says Robert Heffel, vice-president of the auction house. “But everything was right about the painting.”
Once the provenance was determined, Ms. Gardiner’s friend acted as only the truest kind of friend would: She returned ownership to a grateful Ms. Gardiner.
In appreciation, Ms. Gardiner is taking Ms. Main and her husband on a Mediterranean cruise. Which is as suitable a gift as any from someone whose ship has undeniably come in.