What is a picture worth?

July 10, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 14D
Maria H. Klassen | Special to Canadian Mennonite
St. Catharines, Ontario
This photo sold for over $18,000 in a thrift store silent auction. (Photo by Tim Albrecht)

In May, a painting sold for $18,900 at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Christian Benefit Thrift Shop in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Bidding started on the progressive silent auction item in mid-December, and closed on May 28, after no new bids had been placed for six business days. The donor of the painting has not been identified, and the store does not appraise or authenticate art items.

The new owner of this picture wishes to remain anonymous. He regularly visits thrift stores in the Niagara region to shop for his growing children. He says the Christian Benefit Thrift Shop in St. Catharines is one of the best organized thrift stores in the area.

On the visit that led to his big purchase, he was looking to buy an older picture frame when he noticed an oil painting in the auction area. He felt the painting was of very good quality, and the colours used—especially the blues of the water and sky—were mesmerizing.

The signature on the painting was “W. Homer.” Winslow Homer was an American landscape painter (1836 - 1910) best known for his marine subjects. He is recognized as one of the foremost painters in nineteenth century America.

"Although the signature 'W. Homer' appears in the bottom right-hand corner, it appears to have been added later,” says the person who bought it. “The work is almost identical to a watercolour by the American artist Stephen Scott Young."

Young is a twenty-first century watercolourist, inspired by Homer, who paints people and scenery of the Bahamas and other southern locations. Young is referred to by some as "the Winslow Homer of his day.”

In the end, some mystery remains about the true creator of the thrift store painting.

The person who bought the painting is not an art collector, and says he would never have spent this much money if the painting was from a private collection. "I knew that my money would be put to good use by MCC,” he says, “so I entered the 'bidding war.'”

He had done some research on MCC but had a few questions. In a discussion with Tim Albrecht, manager of the store, Albrecht showed him a picture he had taken personally on an MCC learning tour to Ethiopia three years ago. In the photo, a young boy is drinking water from his hand, under a pump overflowing with clean water. This MCC-funded well project had provided clean water to a community that had previously suffered significant health issues due to their lack of clean water.

The purchaser of the painting says he is happy to help fund initiatives “that improve access to basics such as clean water and sanitation. The more we can do to reduce disparity in this world the better."

This photo sold for over $18,000 in a thrift store silent auction. (Photo by Tim Albrecht)

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