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Christie’s Modern British and Irish Art specialist Alice Murray reveals the back of Diana Surprised by Satyrs (After Rubens) by Sir Matthew Smith (1879-1959)

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

From its auction and exhibition history and provenance to notes from the artist on which way is ‘UP’, the details found on the ‘verso’ can significantly enhance a painting’s value

1. 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 been applied to the reverse.

365体育首页Christie’s specialists can check signatures by looking them up in the artist’s catalogue raisonné and, sometimes, even narrow down the date a work was painted based on the evolution of a signature over time.

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), 1945 (still life). Oil and pencil on board. 18½ x 19¼  in (47 x 48.9  cm). Sold for £509,000 on 26 June 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982), 1945 (still life). Oil and pencil on board. 18½ x 19¼ in (47 x 48.9 cm). Sold for £509,000 on 26 June 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Nicholson’s address in Cornwall has been added bottom left of the back of the picture

365体育首页Nicholson’s address in Cornwall has been added bottom left of the back of the picture

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  (1894-1982) often included his address,’ says Christie’s Modern British and Irish Art365体育首页 specialist Alice Murray. ‘It’s a lovely addition that helps you build the story behind the artwork.’

2. 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 —365体育首页 can be used to track them down, and in turn, narrow down when and where a work was made.

Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 15645-16378 Antwerp), The Outdoor Wedding Dance. 16 x 20½  in (40.5 x 52  cm). Oil on oak panel. Sold for £1,202,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp), The Outdoor Wedding Dance365体育首页. 16 x 20½ in (40.5 x 52 cm). Oil on oak panel. Sold for: £1,202,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

The reverse of a 16th-century oil painting panel showing the brand of the city of Antwerp — a pair of hands above a castle. The mark dates from 1617, when new regulations drawn up by 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’

365体育首页The reverse of a 16th-century oil painting panel showing the brand of the city of Antwerp — a pair of hands above a castle. The mark dates from 1617, when new regulations drawn up by 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 the artist signed the finished work can even give you an idea of how long it took to complete.

365体育首页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. 

365体育首页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.

3. 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,’ explains Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Veronica Scarpati. ‘For example, the Museum of Modern Art has  as far back as 1929.’

Sano di Pietro (Siena 1405-1481), The Madonna and Child. On gold ground panel. 16 ¼ x 11⅝  in (41.2 x 29.6  cm). Sold for £170,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

Sano di Pietro (Siena 1405-1481), The Madonna and Child365体育首页. On gold ground panel. 16 ¼ x 11⅝ in (41.2 x 29.6 cm). Sold for £170,500 on 9 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

The back of Pietro’s painting with stencils, stickers and labels, including those of London dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons and New York gallery Wildenstein & Co.

The back of Pietro’s painting with stencils, stickers and labels, including those of London dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons and New York gallery Wildenstein & Co.

365体育首页Other key players to look out for include institutions such as the  or the , and dealers like ,  or , as seen, top right, on the back of the picture shown above.

365体育首页Other labels that record a painting’s journey can come from conservators, customs and border controls, or even defunct bureaucratic mechanisms such as the , which stamped its double-headed eagle logo on to the back of the art it looted.

4. Inscriptions will also have a story to tell

365体育首页Private collectors throughout history have added their own names to the back of a work. King Charles I of England (1600-1649), for example, branded  topped with a crown onto the reverse of works in his royal collection.

Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), Hills and Darkening Sky Rain over the Downs. Oil on canvas. 12½ x 18½  in (31.7 x 47  cm). Sold for £32,500 on 23 January 2020 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), Hills and Darkening Sky: Rain over the Downs. Oil on canvas. 12½ x 18½ in (31.7 x 47 cm). Sold for £32,500 on 23 January 2020 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © The Estate of Ivon Hitchens. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Allen Freer’s handwritten provenance is on the bottom of the stretcher for Hills and Darkening Sky

Allen Freer’s handwritten provenance is on the bottom of the stretcher for Hills and Darkening Sky

‘On the back of this landscape [above] by  (1893-1979) you have the stamp of his wife, Mollie, as well as a later, handwritten note placing it in the collection of Allen and Beryl Freer365体育首页,’ explains Alice Murray.

Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), The Madonna and Child Releasing Souls from Purgatory. Oil on canvas. 18⅜ x 12¼  in (46.7 x 31.2  cm). Sold for £10,000 on 5 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), The Madonna and Child Releasing Souls from Purgatory. Oil on canvas. 18⅜ x 12¼ in (46.7 x 31.2 cm). Sold for £10,000 on 5 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

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

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

In 2019, Christie’s sold a painting [above] by  (1680-1764), which contains an old hand-written note that describes its title, date and the fact it was a bozzetto365体育首页 — or sketch — for painting, as well as providing some provenance — that it was gifted to one D. Domenico Guastaferro in July 1748.

365体育首页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 ask a paper conservator to carefully transfer them onto the new board.

5. Inventory numbers reveal a work’s auction history

365体育首页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 Macleod365体育首页. ‘The Christie’s archives in London has details of most of the sales held during the auction house’s 254 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 Olivia Ghosh, a cataloguer in Christie’s Old Masters365体育首页 department.


Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) and Studio, Man with a Sword. Oil on canvas. 40¼ x 35  in (102.3 x 88.5  cm). Sold for £2,200,000 on 3 December 2013 at Christie’s in London

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) and Studio, Man with a Sword. Oil on canvas. 40¼ x 35 in (102.3 x 88.5 cm). Sold for £2,200,000 on 3 December 2013 at Christie’s in London

The reverse of Rembrandt’s Man with a Sword showing its auction stencils, and in the centre, an 1898 Amsterdam exhibition label 

The reverse of Rembrandt’s Man with a Sword 365体育首页showing its auction stencils, and in the centre, an 1898 Amsterdam exhibition label 

In 2013, Christie’s sold a portrait by  (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.’

6. If the painting has been lined, repair work may have been carried out

365体育首页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 surface 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.’

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, R.S.A., R.S.W. (1883-1937), The Avenue, Auchnacraig, circa 1927. Oil on canvas. 25 x 30  in (63.5 x 76.2  cm). Sold for £83,750 on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, R.S.A., R.S.W. (1883-1937), The Avenue, Auchnacraig, circa 1927. Oil on canvas. 25 x 30 in (63.5 x 76.2 cm). Sold for £83,750 on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in London

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  (1883-1937) left clear instructions regarding how to maintain the condition of his works on their reverse,’ says Alice Murray. ‘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.’

7. Warped stretchers can be a giveaway that it has been hung in humid conditions

365体育首页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 are advisable,’ states Ghosh.

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Ocean Park #108, 1978. Oil on canvas. 78 x 62  in (198.1 x 157.5  cm). Sold for $5,723,000 on 13 November 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Ocean Park #108, 1978. Oil on canvas. 78 x 62 in (198.1 x 157.5 cm). Sold for $5,723,000 on 13 November 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The reverse of Diebenkorn’s painting helpfully explains which way up it should be hung

365体育首页The reverse of Diebenkorn’s painting helpfully explains which way up it should be hung

365体育首页While not venturing so far as to specify where they should be hung, some artists, such as  (1922-1993), helpfully leave notes to indicate their correct orientation. On the back of the work above Diebenkorn has written in pencil ‘TOP’, with an arrow pointing upwards. 

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8. 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. 

365体育首页‘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); Laveuses au bord de leau, Pontoise (verso), 1878. Oil on canvas. 12⅝ x 15 ¾  in (32 x 40  cm). Sold for £347,250 on 6 February 2020 at Christie’s in London

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Poulailler à la maison rouge, Pontoise (recto); Laveuses au bord de l'eau, Pontoise (verso), 1878365体育首页. Oil on canvas. 12⅝ x 15 ¾ in (32 x 40 cm). Sold for £347,250 on 6 February 2020 at Christie’s in London

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

365体育首页Set into the back of Pissarro’s 1878 scene of farmyard birds is another work entirely, depicting two women washing laundry 


365体育首页Veronica Scarpati proffers an example. ‘In February this year Christie’s sold a work by  (1830-1903) which had a second, signed Pissarro on the reverse,’ she explains. 

‘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.’