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Woman traded grilled cheese sandwiches 50 years ago for painting that eventually sold for $280K

Irene Demas and Tony Demas of Ontario, Canada, are now richer by hundreds of thousands of dollars, thanks to a rare Maud Lewis painting that landed in their possession many decades ago.

It all began in the early 1970s when the couple established an eatery in the city of London called The Villa. At the time, Irene was a 19-year-old newlywed, while Tony worked in real estate.

When he discovered a building that used to house a restaurant, he brought up the idea of opening one of their own.

Irene Demas and Tony Demas holding a Maud Lewis painting of a black truck

Courtesy of Irene Demas

Irene had no culinary experience and had never imagined herself working in a restaurant kitchen. But on the Villa’s first day, the chef had too many beers, and Tony asked his wife to take over.

“I knew nothing honestly about food,” Irene said. “But I did know how to make a grilled cheese, so I thought, ‘OK, our special’s just going to be grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s it.’ That’s the only thing I knew how to (make) … and maybe boil water.”

Irene uses five-year-old cheddar and freshly baked artisan bread to make her famous grilled cheese sandwiches, which became a hit and helped the restaurant stay afloat.

A Maud Lewis painting featuring a black truck

Courtesy of Irene Demas

Around 1973, future regulars Audrey and John Kinnear came to the restaurant. The two couples became friends and soon began making some trades, which was usual in the ‘70s.

John started bringing in some of his art and asked Tony if they could trade his daily grilled cheese sandwiches orders for art. Luckily, Irene and Tony genuinely loved his watercolor creations.

“We never really kept tabs, to say, ‘OK, well, you were in, and you spent $15. Now, you know, you’re gonna give us $15 credit,’” Irene explained. “There was such a wonderful relationship with the Kinnears.”

One day, John brought pieces of art that weren’t his own to trade. They were made by a folk artist he’d met named Maud Lewis, who had limited mobility and was of simple means.

Courtesy of Irene Demas

“(Kinnear) came in with this very strange-looking art. It was on board, unframed, a very childlike, very primitive art that I’d never seen before,” Irene said. “I’m not an art expert, and we weren’t art collectors. We just knew what we liked.”

But one Maud Lewis painting stood out to her—that of a black truck with a bright yellow background. She was pregnant at the time and thought that if they were to have a boy, they could hang it in his room.

Irene picked the right one because they did have a boy. She placed the painting in a frame along with a few handwritten letters Lewis sent to John and hung it in her newborn son’s room.

Lewis, who lived in Nova Scotia and had never achieved any financial success for her art, became a topic of interest in the art world decades later.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that Irene began hearing the familiar name John had mentioned to her decades before. More people began collecting and buying Maud Lewis paintings, and her work would bring in $2,000 to $3,000 in auction sales at the time.

“But I wasn’t really looking into it because, like I said, we loved the piece,” Irene said. “We didn’t buy it as an investment or didn’t think that it was a great piece of art even.”

Soon, various auctioneers pursued Irene, but two brothers from Miller & Miller Auctions were determined. They met with Irene and Tony face-to-face and presented them with a box of butter tarts. Not long after their meeting—and encouragement from her children—Irene put the piece up for auction.

On May 14, the painting sold for CA$350,000 (US$278,789), and the letters sold for CA$70,000 (US$55,758).

Parting with the painting they’ve had for decades was bittersweet, but Irene said their earnings will be put to good use.

Both are retired, but Irene works on and off as a private chef, while Tony, now 90, has been traveling.

“If it weren’t for the grilled cheese, it just would have been another Maud Lewis painting coming up for auction,” Irene said.

“I know it would have gone it would have broken all records because it is such a special and unique painting and with the letters, but I think it was the grilled cheese story that really let everybody in the world know was there.”

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