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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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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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.
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.