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

Tony Demas and Irene Demas from Ontario, Canada are now richer than ever thanks to a rare oil painting that was gifted to them many decades ago.

It all started in 1970 when the couple opened The Villa in London. Tony was a real estate agent, and Irene was 19 years old when they met.

He came across a building that was once home to a restaurant and thought of opening his own.

Courtesy Irene Demas

Irene was a novice chef and had never thought of working in a restaurant. 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 makes her famous grilled cheese sandwiches using five-year-old cheddar cheese and freshly baked artisan bread. This helped the restaurant stay afloat.

A Maud Lewis painting featuring a black truck
Courtesy Irene Demas

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

John began bringing in his art and asked Tony to trade his daily grilled cheese sandwiches for art. Tony and Irene truly loved Tony’s 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 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 painting stood out to her—that of a black truck with a bright yellow background. She was pregnant at the moment and thought that they could hang it in their boy’s room if they ever had a baby.

Irene chose the right painting because they had 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, but had never been able to make a living from her art, became a topic of fascination in the art world decades later.

Maud Lewis holding up a painting of hers in front of her house
wikipedia| wikipedia

It wasn’t until around 2000 that Irene began hearing the familiar name John had mentioned to her decades before. People began to collect Maud Lewis paintings and her work would fetch between $2,000 and $3,000 at auction.

“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 Tony and Irene face-to-face, and gave them a box of butter tarts. Not long after their meeting—and encouragement from her children—Irene put the piece up for auction.

The painting was sold for CA$350,000 (US$278,789) on May 14th, while the letters were sold for CA$70,000 ($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 now retired. Irene works as a private chef and Tony, at 90, travels.

“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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