What to look for on the back of a painting: an expert guide

From its auction history and provenance to notes from the artist, the details found on the ‘verso’ can significantly enhance a painting’s value, as specialist Olivia Ghosh explains in the video above

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  • 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 reverse of 1945 (still life), by Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982). Nicholson’s address in Cornwall has been added to the back of the picture, bottom left

The reverse of 1945 (still life), by Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982). Nicholson’s address in Cornwall has been added to the back of the picture, bottom left

The artist will usually 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 (1894-1982) often included his address, a welcome addition that helps specialists build the story behind the artwork.

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  • 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 larger paintings. Painting on copper sheets also became fashionable in the 17th century.

Stamps and labels from the suppliers of these materials can 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.

Pieter Brueghel II (15645-16378), The Outdoor Wedding Dance. Oil on oak panel. The reverse of this 16th-century oil painting panel, right, shows the brand of the city of Antwerp a pair of hands above a castle

Pieter Brueghel II (1564/5-1637/8), The Outdoor Wedding Dance. Oil on oak panel. The reverse of this 16th-century oil painting panel, right, 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 ‘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 mark dates from 1617, when a new rule of the Antwerp Joiners’ Guild stated ‘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’

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, also vary over time and between places.

Soft wood, such as poplar, was used in Italy, while hard wood, for example oak, 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.

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  • 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.

Studio of Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669), A boy reading. Oil on canvas. 29¾ x 23⅜ in (75.6 x 59.5 cm). Estimate £10,000-15,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, 25 November-9 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

Studio of Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669), A boy reading. Oil on canvas. 29¾ x 23⅜ in (75.6 x 59.5 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, 25 November-9 December 2022 at Christie’s Online

The sticker on the central brace indicates that the work was previously in the collection of Jacques Goudstikker, an important Dutch dealer of Old Master paintings. His collection, which had been surveyed by Hermann Goering, was looted by the Nazis

The sticker on the central brace indicates that the work was previously in the collection of Jacques Goudstikker, an important Dutch dealer of Old Master paintings. His collection, which had been surveyed by Hermann Goering, was looted by the Nazis

Other key players to look out for include institutions such as the Royal Academy of Arts or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and well-established dealers.

Labels that record a painting’s journey can also come from customs and border controls, conservators, or even defunct bureaucratic mechanisms such as the Nazi Germany’s Chamber of Culture, which stamped a double-headed eagle on to the back of the art it looted.

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  • 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 bottom of the stretcher of Hills and Darkening Sky Rain over the Downs, by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979)

Handwritten provenance on the bottom of the stretcher of Hills and Darkening Sky: Rain over the Downs, by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979)

On the back of the landscape by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) above is the stamp of the artist’s wife, Mollie, as well as a later handwritten note placing it in the collection of Allen and Beryl Freer.

Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), The Madonna and Child Releasing Souls from Purgatory. Oil on unlined canvas

Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), The Madonna and Child Releasing Souls from Purgatory. Oil on unlined canvas

The reverse of Conca’s painting features a handwritten inscription indicating that it was gift to one D. Domenico Guastaferro

The reverse of Conca’s painting features a handwritten inscription indicating that it was gift to one D. Domenico Guastaferro

In 2019, Christie’s sold a work by Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), above, 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.

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.

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  • 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. Blockchain is another method increasingly used.

A Christie’s stencil on the painting’s stretcher reading ‘9 LP’ is a valuable clue to its provenance. Identifiable from a stock-book entry made in 1958, it shows that the work came from the internationally important Chatsworth collection

A Christie’s stencil on the painting’s stretcher reading ‘9 LP’ is a valuable clue to its provenance. Identifiable from a stock-book entry made in 1958, it shows that the work came from the internationally important Chatsworth collection

‘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 MacLeod. ‘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.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) and Studio, Man with a Sword. Oil on canvas

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) and Studio, Man with a Sword. Oil on canvas

The reverse of the work shows its auction stencils, and in the centre, an 1898 Amsterdam exhibition label 

The reverse of the work shows its auction stencils, and in the centre, an 1898 Amsterdam exhibition label 

In 2013, Christie’s sold a portrait by Rembrandt (1606-1669) 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,’ Ghosh explains.

‘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.’

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  • If a painting has been lined, repair work may have been carried out

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 refers to the process of 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.’

F.C.B. Cadell left clear instructions on the back of his works about how to care for them in the future

F.C.B. Cadell left clear instructions on the back of his works about how to care for them in the future

The Scottish Colourist F.C.B. Cadell (1883-1937) left clear instructions regarding how to maintain the condition of his works on their reverse. On the back of The Avenue, Auchnacraig, above, are the words ‘Absorbent ground. NEVER varnish’, because Cadell felt the chalky quality of his paint surface was of utmost importance.

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  • Warped stretchers can be a giveaway that a painting has been hung in humid conditions

Major cracks in the work might indicate that it has been hung in a hot, dry place, such as above a fireplace, while warped stretchers could suggest it lived in a bathroom. ‘Neither is advisable,’ says Ghosh.

The back of Ocean Park #108, 1978, by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), helpfully explains which way up it should be hung. ‘TOP’ is legible near the upper-central brace

The back of Ocean Park #108, 1978, by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), helpfully explains which way up it should be hung. ‘TOP’ is legible near the upper-central brace

While not venturing so far as to specify where they should be hung, some artists, such as Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), leave notes to indicate their correct orientation. On the back of the work above, the artist has written ‘TOP’ in pencil, with an arrow pointing upwards.

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  • On rare occasions, the back of a painting can even reveal another work of art

Every now and again 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.

Set into the back of Pissarro’s 1878 scene of farmyard birds is another work entirely, a depiction of two women washing laundry

Set into the back of Pissarro’s 1878 scene of farmyard birds is another work entirely, a depiction of two women washing laundry

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.