Tom Thomson, Group of Seven paintings sold at garage sale in Vancouver for less than $100

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

James Labrecque can breathe a sigh of relief. The $26,000 he inadvertently handed over when he sold an old safe over eBay seems a mere drop in the water compared to the windfall another bargain hunter picked up at a Vancouver garage sale.

The unidentified buyer snagged two paintings for less than $100 while scouring the yard sale circuit. As it turns out, he got more than just a bargain.

The CBC reports that one of the paintings has been pegged as an early work by Group of Seven artist Frederick Varley, while the second sprang from the brush of Tom Thomson — a painter who is credited with inspiring the group of legendary Canadian artists though he was not a part of it.

The artists of the Group of Seven, considered the most storied and iconic art collective in Canadian history, were known for their landscape paintings. Their impressive output now adorns galleries around the world and commands big bucks at art sales. Experts estimate the Thomson painting could fetch between $150,000 and $250,000 when they put it on the auction block in mid-May, but that's a modest sum compared to what the painting could go for had it not been brought to Maynards auction house in a plastic shopping bag.

"Normally, [the estimate] would be probably closer to $600,000, but because it was found at a yard sale and it doesn't have the same provenance as many paintings do, we decided to keep the estimates conservative," Kate Bellringer, director of Canadian and contemporary art at Maynards, told the CBC.

When the paintings (literally) appeared at her doorstep, Bellringer told the network she embarked on a journey lasting many months to clean, restore and verify the works. The Thomson, in particular, was in bad shape, while the Varley piece needed to be examined by dozens of expert eyes.

"I personally had not seen a Varley watercolour of this age, and the Thomson was extremely dirty and had been quite well handled," she said.

Bellringer said she believes Thomson created the painting while sitting in a canoe on a lake in Algonquin Provincial Park circa 1915. The scene shows what looks to be a post-sunrise setting with the artist's skillful brushstrokes filling in a landscape of sky, water, hills and the hint of a wilderness beyond the frame.

"It's believed he made about 400 sketches of this nature in his life, and to find one is extremely rare," Bellringer added.

University of British Columbia art professor John O'Brian was among the first to examine the newly discovered work.

"My first thought in seeing the painting: that this was good, that this was right, that this was by Thomson," O'Brian told the network.

From there, he recommended that experts in Ontario also have a look, as forgery is always a concern in the art world.

"Wherever there are large sums of money involved, and they are for Tom Thomson, and for Varley as well, then you have the possibility of forging," he said, adding that the research conducted by the gallery indicated both pieces were authentic.

Though Maynards considers the Thomson painting to be the more substantial find, the Varley watercolour has also excited art historians and collectors. Painted before he joined the Group of Seven, Varley's canvas depicts a scene from Sheffield, England, and is valued at under $10,000.