For Christie’s Old Masters specialist Olivia Ghosh, the back of a picture is often more revealing than the front: ‘Even the smallest markings can tell us something about its history’
Who, what, when... and where
First and foremost, you’ll want to know who painted your picture. Artists started signing their works around the 15th century, and while their signatures are most commonly on the front, in more recent times they have often been applied to the reverse.
Christie’s specialists can check signatures by looking them up in the artist’s catalogue raisonné — and sometimes even narrow down the date of a work based on the evolution of a signature over time.
The back of 1945 (still life) by Ben Nicholson. The artist’s address in Cornwall has been added to the back of the picture, bottom left. The work sold for £509,000 on 26 June 2017 at Christie’s in London
The artist might also have provided a title or date — and sometimes more besides. As well as signing, naming and dating his works on the reverse, the British artist Ben Nicholson often included his address, a welcome addition that helps specialists build the story behind the artwork.
Materials can narrow down a painting’s origins
Artists began switching from working on wooden panels to canvas in the 15th and 16th centuries, because it enabled them to make larger paintings. Painting on copper sheets also became fashionable in the 17th century.
Stamps and labels from the suppliers of these materials may contain the names and addresses of their businesses. Reference lists — such as Alexander Katlan’s American Artists’ Materials Suppliers Directory — can be used to track them down and, in turn, help establish when and where a work was made.
The back of Pieter Brueghel II’s The Outdoor Wedding Dance, painted in oil on oak panel, shows the brand of the city of Antwerp: a pair of hands above a castle. The mark dates from 1617, when a new rule of the Antwerp Joiners’ Guild stated that ‘every joiner is from now on obliged to punch his mark on frames and panels made by him, on pain of a fine of three guilders’. The work sold for £1,202,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London
Comparing the date the materials were purchased with the date on which the artist signed the finished work can even give you an idea of how long it took to complete.
The types of materials used to create a work’s board, cradle or stretcher, along with how it was constructed, vary over time and between places.
Soft wood, such as poplar, was used in Italy, while hard wood — oak, for example — was used in Britain and the Netherlands. Another clue can be obtained from how the canvas is fixed to the stretcher: staples replaced nails after the 1940s.
Labels indicate provenance and exhibition history
When a gallery or museum displays a work of art, it often attaches a label to its back that indicates the artist’s name, the picture’s title, and usually a date, inventory number and address.
With the advent of the internet, it has become much easier to research these labels. For example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has digitised all of its exhibition catalogues, press releases and lender lists as far back as 1929.
Stencils and labels, including that of London dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons, on the back of the gold-ground panel The Madonna and Child by Sano di Pietro, sold for £170,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London
The back of A boy reading, by the studio of Rembrandt, which sold for £44,100 on 9 December 2022 at Christie’s Online. The label on the central brace indicates that the work was previously in the collection of the Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. His collection, which had been surveyed by Hermann Goering, was looted by the Nazis
Labels that record a painting’s journey can also come from customs and border controls, conservators, or defunct bureaucratic mechanisms such as Germany’s Reich Chamber of Culture (1933-45), which stamped a double-headed eagle on the back of the art it plundered.
Marks and inscriptions also have a story to tell
Private collectors throughout history have added their names to the back of works they owned. King Charles I of England (1600-1649), for example, branded his initials ‘CR’ topped with a crown onto the reverse of works in his royal collection.
Handwritten provenance on the stretcher of Hills and Darkening Sky: Rain over the Downs by Ivon Hitchens, which sold for £32,500 on 23 January 2020 at Christie’s in London
In 2019, Christie’s sold a work by Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), below, which contains an old handwritten note giving its title and date and describing it as a bozzetto, or sketch, for a painting. It also provides some information on provenance, stating that it was gifted to one D. Domenico Guastaferro in July 1748.
The back of Sebastiano Conca’s The Madonna and Child Releasing Souls from Purgatory features a handwritten inscription indicating that it was gift to one D. Domenico Guastaferro. The work sold for £10,000 on 5 July 2019 at Christie’s in London
If you decide to add a support to the back of your painting, it might be an idea to use Perspex so that the labels remain visible — or you could ask a paper conservator to transfer them carefully onto the new board.
Inventory numbers reveal a work’s auction history
Since the early 19th century, Christie’s has marked the back of pictures with an inventory number. Initially these numbers were stencilled in black ink, while other auction houses used chalk. Today, rather than stencilling numbers on the back of pictures, it is more common for a sticker with a barcode to be applied.
‘These numbers correspond to records that tell us when and where something was sold, and sometimes who sold it and what price was paid,’ explains Christie’s librarian and archivist Lynda McLeod. ‘The Christie’s archives in London have details of most of the sales held during the auction house’s 250-plus years in business.’
‘When cataloguing paintings, these stencils allow us not only to piece together provenance, but also to see if the work has been attributed to different artists in the past,’ adds Christie’s Old Masters specialist Olivia Ghosh.
A Christie’s stencil reading ‘9 LP’, identifiable from a stock-book entry made in 1958, shows that this painting came from the internationally important Chatsworth collection. The work, A mandolin with a book of music on a blue and gold cushion, with fruit on a partially draped ledge by Francesco Fieravino, sold for £23,940 on 9 December 2022 at Christie’s Online
The reverse of Man with a Sword, 1644, by Rembrandt and studio, shows the stencil ‘272ER’, indicating a 1928 auction at Christie’s of a collection belonging to Sir George Lindsay Holford. In the centre is an 1898 Amsterdam exhibition label
In 2013, Christie’s sold a portrait by Rembrandt and his studio, which had ‘272ER’ stencilled on the back. ‘That pointed us to a 1928 auction at Christie’s of a collection belonging to Sir George Lindsay Holford,’ says Ghosh.
‘From there we traced the painting’s provenance back to his father, Robert Stayner Holford, who was the founder of the Burlington Fine Arts Club and owned three other Rembrandts, all now in museums. Knowing these details can add great value to a painting.’
On rare occasions, the back of a painting may reveal another work of art
Sometimes the back of a painting can reveal something that rivals the importance of the work of art on the front, such as a handwritten note by the artist — or even a second picture.
‘Materials have historically been expensive, so impoverished artists were known to try out different compositions on the same supports,’ Ghosh explains.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Poulailler à la maison rouge, Pontoise (recto), 1878. Oil on canvas. 12⅝ x 15¾ in (32 x 40 cm). Sold for £347,250 on 6 February 2020 at Christie’s in London
Set into the back (verso) of Pissarro’s 1878 scene of farmyard birds is another work entirely: Laveuses au bord de l’eau, Pontoise, a depiction of two women washing laundry, from the same year
In February 2020 Christie’s sold a work by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) which had a second signed Pissarro on the reverse.
Christie’s art handlers mounted it in a custom-made support so that both sides could be seen during the auction preview. If it had been hanging on a wall, no one would have had an inkling of what the back was hiding.
The back of a painting can show condition — and even an artist’s instructions on maintenance
The Scottish Colourist F.C.B. Cadell (1883-1937) often left clear instructions regarding how to maintain his works on their reverse. On the back of The Avenue, Auchnacraig, below, are the words ‘Absorbent ground. NEVER varnish’, because Cadell felt the chalky quality of his paint surface was of the utmost importance.
Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell left clear instructions on the back of many of his works about how to care for them in the future. On The Avenue, Auchnacraig, circa 1927, he implores future owners to ‘NEVER varnish’ the painting, which sold for £83,750 on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London
In the absence of advice from the artist, other methods might be used to maintain a work’s condition. If the rear of the canvas has traces of glue around the edges, or feels thick and new, the painting may have been lined. This involves attaching an additional layer of canvas to the original in order to repair holes and tears and stabilise the painting.
‘Lining a canvas was, and still is, a common practice for Old Master paintings,’ says Ghosh. ‘In the past it was often done with a heavy hand, but now it can be completed without damaging the paint’s surface.’
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How, where (and where not) to hang
While not venturing so far as to specify where they should be hung, some artists, such as Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), have been known to leave notes to indicate their correct orientation. On the reverse of the 1954 work Berkeley #16, for example, Diebenkorn indicated the top of the painting with an upward arrow.
If a work has been kept in an unsuitable environment, the back can be revealing. Major cracks might indicate that it has been displayed in hot, dry conditions, such as above a fireplace, while warped stretchers could suggest that it has been hung in a humid place, such as a bathroom. ‘Neither is advisable,’ says Ghosh.
For more than a quarter of a century, Christie’s has engaged with the legacy of Nazi-era and Second World War art theft and dispossession. Find out more about Christie’s Restitution department