Claire Prentice: This is a vindication of the sisters and one in the eye for the Turner experts

WHAT a difference a name makes. Until a week ago, deep in the vaults of a Cardiff museum, sat three dusty, worthless oil paintings. In the 61 years since they had been left to the museum even the staff had paid little attention to the works, swirling dramatic seascapes entitled The Beacon Light, Off Margate and Margate Jetty.

They were part of a collection which had been gifted to the National Museum Cardiff by spinster sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies. They had believed the paintings were the work of the great watercolourist JMW Turner, but in 1956, Turner experts judged them to be fakes, and dispatched them to the outer darkness of the storerooms.

Now modern techniques, including X-ray, infrared and pigment analysis, have established that the three paintings are indeed lost works by Turner, taking their place alongside other classic seascapes such as Dutch Boats In A Gale and Fishermen At Sea. Overnight, the value of the paintings has rocketed from next to nothing to millions.

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But while the result is a vindication of the sisters’ instincts, and one in the eye for the Turner experts, it also sheds a fascinating light on the power of an artist’s name.

Like an obscure 45 found to have backing vocals by a young David Bowie, or a doodle on the back of a napkin proven to have been dashed off by Picasso, whatever value the paintings are now judged to have stems entirely from their connection to a great 
artist. Before, they were viewed as mediocre works. Now their financial value has gone through the roof, but has their aesthetic value grown too?

Modern masters are aware of the financial impact of their brand name and keep a close eye on what goes out of the studio. Turner’s grip on the production line was less secure. He was prolific and quick, producing around 550 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours. So fecund was he that two other lost Turner paintings have turned up recently. One had been bought for £3,700 in a sale at a local golf club. Another, found in Margate, is being authenticated.

The Cardiff paintings were regularly re-examined over the decades by experts, all of whom agreed with the original judgment that the paintings were either fakes or, in the words of the museum’s curator, somehow simply “wrong.” Now those critical judgements have been ripped up.

But while the cash value of The Beacon Light, Off Margate and Margate Jetty has changed the aesthetic merit of the works remains exactly the same, right down to the last swirl of paint. Sometimes what’s in the painting is of less interest than the name in the catalogue. «