04/13/2012 04:23 EDT | Updated 06/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Garage-sale painting creates buzz in Vancouver before May auction

VANCOUVER - It's like winning the lottery: A man browses through a garage sale, plunks down $100 for two old paintings in a vaguely familiar style and finds himself with what an auction house says are paintings by two of Canada's most iconic — and valuable — painters.

But determining whether the works really are those of Tom Thomson and Frederick Varley, whose later works were part of the Group of Seven painters, isn't nearly as simple as reading the numbers off a winning lottery ticket.

Maynard's Auctions spokeswoman Kate Bellringer said Friday the landscape believed to be by Thomson — in pale blues, purples and peachy colours — was one of two paintings that an older gentleman brought to her in a shopping bag in January after finding them at the garage sale.

"When he brought them in he didn't quite know what they were so he was just, you know, `Take it or leave it,' kind of thing and I said I would be happy to look into it for him."

Bellringer said she was excited to see what she believed was an original Thomson, although she tempered her feelings with some skepticism before the painting could be authenticated by experts.

"The Thomson was extremely dirty," she said. "You could see a partial signature. The Tom is actually pretty easy to make out. The Thomson part of it has been rubbed out but you can still see it, it says Thomson."

The other painting was a watercolour, which Maynard's has since determined was done by Varley before he moved from England and became a member of the Group of Seven artists. The group painted with Thomson prior to the First World War, scattered, and then reunited in 1920.

Bellringer said she took what she suspected was the Thompson to Toronto, where an expert told her it was the real thing.

She said three other people who've seen the painting say it was done by Thomson but that about six other experts she's consulted aren't so sure.

Bellringer wouldn't name her experts.

But Charlie Hill, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, is one of the consultants who isn't so sure about the supposed Thomson painting.

Hill said he's been in talks with Maynard's about the work for about three weeks, and while it has some Thomson attributes, he's skeptical.

"It has things going for it, and I have questions," he said from Ottawa, noting he hasn't seen the actual painting.

Hill said authenticating a painting requires looking for consistencies from different periods of an artist's career — everything from the quality of brush strokes to the medium and comparing the signature to other works.

"It's just a matter of weighing a variety of arguments pro and con," he said, adding all these aspects may fail to provide a definitive answer.

"Finally, one can go and do a chemical analysis of materials, which is again, not definitive. The analysis of materials can say: `OK, there's nothing inconsistent with what we know the artist used at that particular time. Or there's no acrylic in it and acrylic was invented 50 years after the artist died."

Authenticating a Thomson is also difficult because no one knows how many works the artist completed as his career took off about five years before he mysteriously drowned in 1917, said Hill, one of the authors of a 2002 book on Thomson.

"At the time of his death, we think there were lists made because of inscriptions on a number of paintings but nobody's ever found those lists. He was known to give away paintings so we can't track down positively everything he did," he said.

"Within the Canadian context, I don't think anybody at that time was (painting) with the freshness of brush strokes and sensitivity to natural effects and colour and looking at the landscape of the north in Ontario in that way."

Sharona Adamowicz-Clements, curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., where about 100 of Thomson's works are housed, said the signature on a painting is most important when it comes to authenticity.

"You're always wary that there are forgerers and so you have to have a discerning eye," she said, adding Thomson is considered a legend.

"There's so much mystery in how he died, why he died. He's also seen as a pioneer in Canadian art — this handsome, tall artist who's gone into the woods and he's been able to capture a certain kind of spirit of Canadian art."

Adamowicz-Clements hasn't seen the Maynard's painting. Neither has David Huff, spokesman for the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont.

Huff said the gallery is one of four major places in Eastern Canada that specializes in Thomson's art and is located in the city where the artist grew up.

The majority of the Owen Sound gallery's Thomson collection was donated by the artist's siblings, Huff said, adding it's interesting to note that a Thomson painting may have turned up at a garage sale on the West Coast.

"If it is a Thomson, it certainly is exciting that a new one has come to light," he said. "He's probably the most well-known Canadian painter that there is and people come from all over to Owen Sound to see his art work."

The painting believed to be by Thomson will go on auction May 16 and is estimated at about $150,000 to $250,000. The Varley isn't expected to fetch as much because it was painted in watercolour — not the Group of Seven's signature oil — and was done before Varley joined the group.