How two stolen Maud Lewis paintings brought the art world’s black market to a Nova Scotia town

How two stolen Maud Lewis paintings brought the art world’s black market to a Nova Scotia town

Alan Deacon, Maud Lewis appraiser and collector, points at a Maud Lewis painting in a book in his home in Nova Scotia on Feb. 19.Meagan Hancock/The Globe and Mail

If Maud Lewis were to paint this scene, there would be more green on the trees, more blue in the slate-coloured sea and more yellow instead of a dull, grey February sky.

But even in the dead of winter, Smith’s Cove remains one of the prettiest little places in Nova Scotia, and that’s probably why people still come here, year after year, as they have for generations. Lately, however, this picturesque cove outside of Digby is becoming known for something aside from the beautiful view.

Sometime in between September, 2020 and June, 2021, someone slipped inside a 100-year-old cottage by the sea and made off with two original Maud Lewis paintings, valued by one appraiser at around $80,000. The Nova Scotia RCMP say the break-in was unlike any they’d seen in this area. It was calculated, careful, and whoever did it left everything else in the pine-shingled cottage untouched.

“They knew exactly what they were looking for,” said Jill Prescesky, a Montrealer who rents the cottage where the paintings were stolen from. “I just looked up at the wall one day and said ‘My God, they’re gone.’”

For decades, the paintings had flanked a window in the cottage’s main bedroom. When she slept there, Prescesky said she’d open her eyes each morning to two colourful scenes of a pair of oxen, one in winter, the other in summer surrounded by a field of tulips. Seeing the artwork every day was as much a part of Smith’s Cove’s special elixir as the fresh ocean air and tranquility, she said.

“When I see those paintings, I feel like I’ve arrived home. Without them, it’s like someone’s missing at the table,” said Prescesky, who has been coming to Nova Scotia in the summers since childhood.

The theft comes as the value of Lewis’s paintings have doubled in recent months, to unprecedented heights, as international buyers try to grow their collection of the deceased Nova Scotian folk artist’s work. Some predict her best and largest paintings, with their idealistic, colour-filled impressions of Digby County’s rural past, will top six figures in the near future, a once-unimaginable price for an untrained artist who used to sell her paintings on Masonite board to tourists for as little as $5.

One of the main theories pursued by the Nova Scotia RCMP is that the Lewis paintings are destined for resale on the black market, a shadowy network of unscrupulous buyers, criminals and distributors who often shuffle stolen art across international borders, making these cases incredibly difficult to solve. Complicating the problem is the lack of resources focused on art recovery in Canada, say collectors and art lawyers.

Those who specialize in recovering stolen art say it’s not just collectors who take notice when the value of an artist’s work begins rising sharply, as Lewis’s has. Art thieves are paying attention, too.

“They’re aware of the auction prices, and they can see what Lewis’s art is selling for,” said Christopher Marinello, a Brooklyn-raised lawyer who founded Venice-based Art Recovery International, and one of a handful of people in the world who track down stolen masterpieces for a living.

“But art thieves are not art lovers, they’re thugs. They just want something that’s valuable. Then they’ll try to unload it, and hope nobody asks any questions about where they got it from.”

The two Maud Lewis paintings shown here are similar to the ones stolen, which depicted two colourful oxen.Meagan Hancock/The Globe and Mail

A half-century after her death, Lewis’s status in the art world continues to grow. Her work, recently on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, has been featured in shows from London to Beijing. Maudie, a 2017 movie starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, brought her work even more international attention.

Lewis, who was crippled by juvenile arthritis and lived in a tiny, shack-like home without running water in Marshalltown, N.S., might find it amusing that artwork she used to sell for a few dollars can now fetch $67,000 at an auction in England. Local auctions are reporting record prices, too – in November, her painting Sandy Cove in Fall sold for $45,500, a new all-time high at Bezanson Auctioneering in Nova Scotia.

“When I first started collecting her work, you could still buy Maud paintings for $500. And I’d often be the only person bidding. Those times are long gone,” said John Risley, a Halifax-born billionaire who built a seafood empire and owns the largest collection of Maud Lewis paintings in the world.

“I think up until the recent past, she didn’t have a reputation outside the region. Paintings changed hands within family members, and were sold mostly at local auctions. But she has international notoriety now.”

In Nova Scotia, the theft is prompting some to begin locking their Lewis originals away, or start selling them at auction, to avoid a similar fate.

“This might cause some people to say ‘I don’t want these in my house,’” said Alan Deacon, one of the country’s top authorities on Maud Lewis and someone who authenticates her paintings for major Canadian art auction houses. “They don’t want to be broken into, so they’re selling them.”

Her oldest fans take no joy in the rising interest for Lewis’s humble folk art, or the fact that it’s now being targeted by thieves. As the value of the work rose, the cottage’s owner, Lynn Odell, among the many Americans who summer in Smith’s Cove, was encouraged to put the Mauds away for the season.

Odell, who is in poor health and unable to able to give an interview, couldn’t imagine anyone trying to steal them. Break-ins weren’t something people in Smith’s Cove worried about.

“She said, ‘They’ve been there for 70 years. No one’s going to take them,’” said Hannah Shield, a close friend and lecturer at NYU who has been coming to Smith’s Cove for decades. “The worst thing anyone’s ever done was a kid who stole a bottle of booze once. And that was 30 years ago.”

A global problem

Although the black market for stolen art is estimated to be worth billions of dollars each year, Canada dedicates few resources to solving these kind of cases.

In the U.S., the FBI has a special task force to counter the problem, with about 20 agents, and Interpol has a division focused exclusively on art crime, and maintains a database of more than 52,000 stolen pieces. In Italy, there are no less than 300 officers in a national squad dedicated to catching art thieves.

But Canada, collectors and lawyers complain, is considered open territory for thieves, and a haven for art traffickers. There’s no national stolen art database, and in most parts of the country art theft remains an area of law enforcement that’s chronically underfunded.

One of the best art crime investigators in the country, a Montreal police detective named Alain Lacoursière, retired a dozen years ago. His expertise has never been replaced, Marinello said. A Quebec-based anti-art-fraud unit, with two officers from the provincial force, an RCMP officer who specializes in copyright and counterfeit money, and a civilian with a master’s degree in art history, was created in 2009, but there are few investigators in the rest of Canada with that kind of specialization.

“It’s all about where you put the resources. Canada could have an incredible art crime squad if it wanted to, because it’s a major market for art,” Marinello said. “There’s a lot more that could be done. You could put more officers into this.”

Marinello says he frequently fields calls from clients in Canada who turn to him because police have run out of leads. When it comes to recovering stolen art, Canadian investigators don’t have a great track record. The largest art theft in Canadian history, 1972′s Skylight Caper – which saw more than $20-million worth of art stolen from Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts – remains unsolved and no charges have ever been laid.

Given the global nature of art crime, investigating the Maud Lewis thefts is a tall order for the tiny Digby detachment of the RCMP, where cases such as these do not come along very often and expertise in this kind of file is limited. The RCMP say while they initially received some tips helpful to their investigation, they admit the trail has “gone cold.”

The problem, Marinello said, is there are too many buyers willing to overlook red flags around valuable art being sold at a discount or without the usual paper trail documenting its origins, known as provenance.

“They become intoxicated with the art’s beauty, and they need to have it,” he said. “A lot of people look the other way, they don’t want to know. But you can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to look into everything that you’re buying, including who you’re buying from.”

To avoid detection, criminals will move art around the world to markets where thefts may not have received media attention. As a last resort, they’ll even try selling it on online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist, he said.

Much of the stolen art in the world isn’t sold for a quick buck, explains Joshua Knelman, a Toronto investigative journalist and author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Throughout the Secret World of Stolen Art. Often, illicit art is hidden away for years before it resurfaces.

“The art market is centuries old, and it works on a different timeline,” he said. “We’re all guessing about what happened [with the Lewis paintings]. But if someone were to put these away quietly somewhere, that person knows these will go up in value, like a stock for a company that is going to keep growing.”

The pandemic, which has closed galleries and museums around the world, has forced art thieves to be more creative in finding their targets, according to Interpol. There have still been several high-profile “cultural property crimes” in the COVID-19 era, including the theft of a Van Gogh painting from a museum in Amsterdam and the theft of three masterpieces from Christ Church College in Oxford, England.

But in many cases, art thieves have had to look elsewhere – often into collectors’ private homes. That’s especially problematic for seasonal properties that owners may not have been visiting as often because of travel restrictions, Marinello explained.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on criminals involved in the illicit traffic of cultural property but did not in any way diminish the demand for these items or the occurrence of such crimes,” said Corrado Catesi, coordinator of Interpol’s Works of Art unit. “As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property.”

While the internet, and searchable stolen art databases, have made it harder for criminals to resell art, there are still plenty of auction houses that have pilfered property embedded into their business. Often art isn’t revealed as stolen property until after a collector dies and their offspring make the discovery.

“A person in a legitimate market may be buying a piece of stolen art, and they may not know what they’re buying,” Knelman said.

The best thing police can do, he said, is go public and hope someone, somewhere, recognizes the paintings, as the RCMP have done here. The problem in this case is Lewis was a serial artist who often painted pairs of oxen in different seasons, so it takes a discerning eye to recognize these particular pieces.

Risley believes whoever has the paintings will have limited options, particularly if they try to keep the works in Nova Scotia.

“It isn’t as though you could have it up in your home. You’d have to have it hidden away,” Risley said. “And if you tried to sell it, it would have to be at a significant discount.”

The Digby Visitor Information Centre, painted in the style of a Maud Lewis painting.Meagan Hancock/The Globe and Mail

While much of the world’s stolen art is never recovered, it does occasionally resurface. Earlier this month, Thunder Bay’s Confederation College announced that two Norval Morrisseau paintings, stolen from the institution in 1981, had been returned. They were recovered after a Toronto-based art curator recognized the works after being approached by a seller in Quebec, and will be permanently installed in the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

While investigators are scanning online auctions for signs of the missing artwork, police say there’s also the possibility the culprit is a simply an obsessed Lewis fan who plans to keep the paintings hidden away.

“There’s definitely the school of thought that someone stole these to resell them,” said Corporal Chris Marshall, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP. “But given [Maud Lewis’s] cultural significance in Nova Scotia, it could be someone who just loves her paintings and wants to keep them for themselves.”

One of the challenges in this case is that it’s not clear when the art was stolen, only that it wasn’t noticed until Prescesky returned to the cottage in June, 2021, and it wasn’t reported to police until September, and the theft wasn’t made public until December. Given that large time frame, and the number of people who have passed through the cottage over decades, some worry the paintings are gone for good.

“I don’t think they’ll ever be found,” Shields said, sighing.

A puzzling crime

In the world painted by Lewis, break-ins and theft didn’t exist. Nova Scotia’s rural countryside is depicted in idealized, highly colourful images that often belied the difficulties of the painter’s own life. It’s a world of winter sleigh rides, peaceful coastal scenes, kittens and apple blosso

“Her paintings brought an imagination of what life could be. That’s why I enjoy having her paintings around. They ground me,” said Risley, whose Halifax home is filled with her art. “We sometimes forget life wasn’t easy for her. She died poor. But while it’s a shame she wasn’t recognized in her lifetime, would money and fame have made her happier? I don’t know.”

Deacon, the Maud expert, met Lewis when he was a young, poorly-paid school teacher in the late 1960s. He’d travelled to Marshalltown, where the frail artist, badly stooped by arthritis, invited him into her small home and told him he could have any painting he wanted.

“It was still wet when I put it in the back of the car,” he said.

At the time, Lewis had recently raised her prices to $5 a painting and would do on-demand requests for whoever showed up at her door. If you wanted a painting of a cat, or a pair of oxen, or a coastal scene in winter, she would produce it. He became enamoured with her unique artistic style; she added slight variations to even her most common serial images so that no two pieces were alike.

For years, the untrained artist lived in poverty, nearly anonymous to the larger Canadian art establishment. Any revenue she might have made from her art was jealously guarded by her husband Everett Lewis, a fish seller who was notoriously frugal and known for carrying cash around in a suitcase.

“Last year was the first year I didn’t buy one of her paintings,” Deacon said. “For many years, she didn’t get the respect she deserved. Now her work is enjoying a golden moment, but it also means it’s getting harder and harder to get them.”

In the summer hamlet of Smith’s Cove, where cottages rarely go up for sale and are often obtained through family connections, speculation is rampant as to who stole the paintings. A parade of gardeners, housekeepers, dinner guests, carpenters, electricians and others have passed through the cottage over the years since Odell’s mother bought the paintings from Lewis and hung them in the bedroom.

“We’ve all turned into Agatha Christie,” said Prescesky, a lecturer at McGill University. “Who would do this?”

Singnage at the Maud Lewis Memorial Park in Marshalltown Nova Scotia.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Shields, the New Yorker, is convinced it can’t be a local. She suspects someone “from far away” pried open a window into the bedroom and snuck off with the Mauds, leaving plenty of other valuable art inside, which has since been put into secure storage.

“I’m still kind of in shock,” said Darren Snair, the cottage’s caretaker and former owner of the Harbourview Inn in Smith’s Cove. “I think everybody is really baffled this would even happen.”

Everyone agrees the thief knew the paintings were there.

“Normally with break-ins, they ransack the place. That wasn’t the case here. They knew what they were after,”Marshall from the RCMP said. “Typically, when we go to a break-in, the house is ransacked. Things are turned upside down, drawers are pulled out and dumped.”

Carol Banks, a retired teacher who used to run a local campground, moved to Smith’s Cove from Toronto in the late 1960s. Lewis was still an obscure little painter down the road at that time, she said.

Like a lot of people in the community, Banks said she doesn’t know anyone who’s ever had a break-in, or even had a need to call the police. Most people still don’t bother locking their doors, she said.

This is Maud country, she said, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.

“When we first moved here, we could have bought as many Maud Lewis paintings as we wanted,” she said. “Well, I guess we should have bought some.”

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