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Canadian restaurant owners traded grilled cheese sandwiches for a painting that just sold for $272,548

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Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to a report from the Washington Post, two restaurant owners in Canada just sold a painting for over a quarter of a million dollars — and all they paid for the painting was some grilled cheese sandwiches.

According to the report, restaurant owners Tony and Irene Demas owned The Villa restaurant in Ontario for many years and developed a special friendship during the 1970s with a local artist named John Kinnear, who loved grilled cheese sandwiches from The Villa.

Kinnear reportedly would visit the restaurant every day with his wife to have a grilled cheese. However, as a struggling artist, Kinnear could not always pay for his sandwiches, which cost $1.95 at the time. So Kinnear and the Demases came to an arrangement: Kinnear provided art for the restaurant, and the Demases allowed Kinnear to sometimes have his grilled cheese sandwiches without paying.

Usually Kinnear brought his own work, but one day he came with some paintings which were done by Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis. Lewis, who died in 1970, was not famous at the time, but she would later become one of Canada's most prized folk artists. The story of how Kinnear came to be in possession of some of Lewis's paintings is interesting in and of itself.

According to the Post report, Kinnear read about Lewis in a 1965 newspaper article which described her as a door painter who had trouble affording her own painting supplies. Kinnear was touched by the story and sent her some painting supplies. Lewis was touched and responded by sending Kinnear some paintings — which she used to sell by the side of the road for $10 apiece. Kinnear gave one of those paintings, along with some letters from Lewis proving that she gave them to him as thanks for the supplies, in exchange for his continued supply of grilled cheese sandwiches.

The Demases immediately displayed the colorful painting, which depicts a black truck driving down a road through a bright countryside, propped in a chair in their restaurant.

Lewis's popularity exploded after her death and her paintings skyrocketed in value. When the Demases retired, they attempted to give the painting, which they knew must be worth some significant sum, to their children, but their children encouraged them to sell the painting and use it to fund their retirement. So they put the painting up for a virtual auction, where it sold for a whopping $272,548. They also sold the letters from Lewis to Kinnear for an astonishing $54,500.

"I was just speechless," said Demas.

Regarding the decision to regularly feed Kinnear in exchange for artwork that was worth, from a monetary standpoint, nearly nothing at the time, Irene Demas said, "In the ’70s, it was different. We didn’t think so much about ourselves; we thought about our neighbors and how we could help each other out."

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