Painting Bought For $300 Turns Out To Be Rare J. M. W. Turner Watercolor Worth As Much As $40,000

Published March 15, 2024
Updated March 18, 2024

The J. M. W. Turner watercolor is a "significant" find, and it's just the latest of the artist's paintings to be rediscovered.

JMW Turner St. David's Cathedral

CheffinsThis J. M. W. Turner watercolor of Bishop Vaughan’s Chapel at St. David’s Cathedral in Wales (1795) will soon go up for auction.

During a 2022 trip to Wales, a British family made a fateful stop at St. David’s Cathedral. There, they were reminded of a painting they owned of the church and decided to further investigate its origins. To their delight, it turned out to be a long-lost piece by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Now, the watercolor painted by the famous English Romantic artist in 1795 is set to be auctioned by Cheffins — and it’s expected to sell for up to $40,000.

How The Bishop Vaughan’s Chapel Watercolor Was Rediscovered

In 1990, an anonymous British family bought a number of paintings at a Suffolk auction for £100, or £235 ($299) today. Among the collection was a watercolor of a crumbling cathedral signed on the back by “W Turner,” which the family proudly displayed on their dining room wall.

“The painting was hanging in our dining room for over 30 years — we periodically discussed that the picture could be by Turner but did not take it any further,” the family said in a statement shared by Cheffins.

But in 2022, their interest in the painting was “rekindled” during a family trip to Wales, which included a stop at St. David’s Cathedral.

St. David's Cathedral

Antony McCallum/ CommonsSt. David’s Cathedral as it appeared in 2016.

Upon returning home, they decided to investigate the painting’s origins.

“At this point, we turned to the Tate Clore Gallery website,” the family explained.

According to ARTNews, the Tate collection contains thousands of paintings and sketches donated by Turner after his death in 1851. Among them is an “early iteration” of the cathedral painting in his South Wales sketchbook from Turner’s trip to the country in 1795.

After the family discovered the sketch, they had the painting that had hung in their dining room for over 30 years professionally appraised. Andrew Wilton, the first curator of the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection at Tate Britain, took a look at the piece on behalf of Cheffins. He confirmed that the style and signature was indeed Turner’s.

Renewed Interest In J. M. W. Turner

Now, the painting of St. David’s Cathedral is set to go up for auction — where it may sell for as much as $40,000. But it’s not the only Turner that’s resurfaced lately.

“Turner’s early watercolours are increasingly coming to the fore,” Cheffins noted in their statement. “It is the true definition of an auction house ‘sleeper,’ and we are privileged to be able to offer it to the market.”

Indeed, another forgotten sketch by J. M. W. Turner was discovered earlier this year in the attic of Kinsham Court, a privately-owned estate.

The sketch, painted shortly after the St. David’s Cathedral watercolor in 1796, depicts Hampton Court Castle in Herefordshire. It was discovered crammed in between other watercolors in the estate’s attic.

Though it’s unsigned, experts quickly authenticated it based on the painting’s style. It sold at auction this month for £96,000 ($122,298.72).

Hampton Court Castle

Minster AuctionsThis Turner sketch was found in the attic of an English estate.

The rediscovery of both these paintings is certainly exciting. Who doesn’t dream of finding a priceless work of art on their dining room wall or in their attic? But they’re also indicative of increasing familiarity with Turner’s oeuvre. And now that these watercolors are fetching high prices at auction, it’s certainly possible that more “lost” pieces by Turner will resurface.

“I believe there are certainly several works by Turner hidden away in private collections which have not been seen on the open market for several decades or even over a century and whose owners may or may not be aware of their true authorship or attribution to Turner,” Cheffins associate Patricia Cross told All That’s Interesting in an email.

“Being a newly discovered and previously unrecorded work by Turner there has as you might expect been considerable interest in the picture, so we would expect and hope it to make upwards of its top estimate.”

After reading about the J. M. W. Turner painting that hung on a family’s dining room wall for 30 years, look through these stunning photos of street art from around the world. Or, discover shunga, Japanese erotic art from the Edo period, in these striking images.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.