A Halifax couple is warning art lovers to be cautious after learning their treasured Maud Lewis painting is likely a fraud. 

John and Sue Corbett bought Untitled: Seagulls and Lighthouses in an online auction held by Calgary’s Levis Auctions in 2005. Levis said the piece came from a private collection on Vancouver Island.

It was listed as a Maud Lewis original.

The backstory was that the artist had been featured in a 1965 CBC documentary, prompting the Vancouver collector to write to her and buy two paintings. The second painting was sold at the same auction, to an unknown buyer. 

The Corbetts paid more than $5,000 for their painting. Both grew up in Nova Scotia and had long admired Lewis’s work.

This Maud Lewis painting was discovered by volunteers at a thrift store in New Hamburg, Ont. It’s called Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fisherman, and is similar to the Corbetts’ painting. (Ken Ogasawara/MCC Photo) 

“I like the style, I like the imagery she presents. It’s typically Nova Scotian in the animals she presents, the water, ideas she presents,” Sue Corbett told CBC News. 

“At that time we were living in Ontario and we liked to show off Nova Scotia,” her husband, John, said. 

‘Absolutely devastated’

As the retired couple began legacy planning, they decided to get the work appraised this summer. Others like it have sold for up to $20,000, and some newly found Lewis works in Britain recently fetched $60,000 at auction. 

But when they brought their Lewis to Halifax appraiser Ian Muncaster of Zwicker’s Art Gallery, he told them it was likely a fake.  

“Absolutely devastated,” Sue Corbett said of her reaction. “Shocked.”

The two aren’t art collectors and never doubted the work was authentic, until Muncaster cast an expert eye on it. 

“He named a couple of things,” John Corbett said. “He talked about the way the horizon was done was atypical from his exposure to it. He said the seagulls, typically their legs are black — these aren’t. The houses, the roofs tended to be a solid colour and here they tend to be blended. Maybe something done in a hurry so they didn’t quite paint it fully.”

The rocks and waves were off, too, and so was the signature. 

John and Sue Corbett have kept the work, but see it as a curio now. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

“We get Maud Lewis paintings brought in weekly, maybe sometimes two or three a week,” Muncaster told CBC. “And I looked at it and I said, ‘I think there’s something not right.'”

He’s been appraising artwork for 50 years. An appraisal document is not a certificate of authenticity, but he declines to appraise works that show signs of fraud — like the one purchased by the Corbetts.

That meant their painting went from a valuation in the thousands to worthless. 

Muncaster ran the painting by Lance Woolaver, the author of several books about Lewis, and Alan Deacon, a collector of her works. Both saw cause for concern.

The Corbett painting is similar to a known Lewis painting, Portrait of Eddie Barnes and Ed Murphy, Lobster Fisherman, which sold for $45,000 in 2017. 

“She had a good sense of colour, of composition, and they really are quite charming,” Muncaster said of the authentic paintings. “Most of the forgeries, you can just tell they’re different.”

Lewis didn’t buy art supplies, but worked with donated paint, so her art mixes interior paints with exterior paints, giving them an uneven sheen. She typically painted on old beaverboard, a type of drywall used in buildings. The Corbetts’ painting is on beaverboard, but it also has an even sheen. 

Ian Muncaster looks at an authentic Maud Lewis painting that was sent to Zwicker’s Art Gallery for framing. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

He contrasted that with an authentic Lewis painting, in for framing. 

“This painting has all the right things. It’s got a good signature, the colour is right, you can see where Maud sketches in pencil underneath, and the finish is sort of variegated. It’s enamel and shiny in some places and quite flat in others.”

In her pre-fame years, Lewis often sold paintings to neighbours who wanted to brighten up a nursery, or who just wanted to put some money in her pockets. She signed her paintings in different ways and sometimes used a marker that can fade. 

“Maud told one of her friends years ago that she thinks she paints one a day,” Muncaster said. “Now, she painted throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, so it’d be over 300 a year, over 3,000 a decade. So it would be approximately 10,000, at least.”

Fraudsters have been busy since her death in 1970. He thinks there are more than 1,000 fake Lewis paintings in circulation. It’s legal to copy a painting, but a crime to try to sell the copy as an original. 

Auction house shredded records

Levis Auctions destroys its paperwork after a decade, so the Lewis documents are gone.

Doug Levis founded Levis Auctions and sold the painting to the Corbetts. He said a woman from Vancouver Island contacted him in 2005 about selling two Maud Lewises she had bought from the artist in the 1960s. 

“I had no reason to disbelieve her story,” he said.

Levis, who is now retired, said as the prices for Lewis’s art have risen, so have the number of “questionable” paintings surfacing. Recently, someone brought in four paintings attributed to Lewis. The business sent those for expert appraisal, which cast doubt on their authenticity, so Levis didn’t auction them.  

He said that’s how Levis handles all Lewis paintings now. 

They told the Corbetts they do offer refunds, but within 14 days of purchase. 

“I think our obligations for the sale have long since passed. I am sorry that after all these years you have found it to be something other than what you thought you had purchased,” the auction company wrote to the Corbetts.

“I hope that you were able to enjoy it in the 16 years you had it and continue to still find some joy in it.”

The Corbetts don’t find much joy in it these days. John calls it a “curio,” kept as a warning to others. Sue said their young grandson painted her a copy of a Maud Lewis a few years ago and that holds more value for them than the fake. 

The artist in residence: Maud Lewis poses with one of her paintings in front of her home. (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

They don’t blame Levis, and don’t think the auctioneer was in on the potential fraud. They urged other amateur collectors to be skeptical, especially of paintings claiming to be by Maud Lewis. 

“I would suggest they get it authenticated. There is a certification of authenticity. It’s not unlike baseball cards — they all come with a certificate of authenticity,” John said. 

Muncaster echoed that sentiment. He suspects one fraudster in Nova Scotia has personally created more than 1,000 fake Lewises, which are often passed off as originals. 

Source From CBC News

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