Expert advice

What you can learn from the back of a painting

Written by Rosanne | Last updated August 2019

Of course, the front of the painting is the most important. But don't be mistaken, because the back of a painting can reveal secrets you wouldn't expect when the work is hanging on the wall. Our art expert, Michiel Vliegenthart, has spent his entire life surrounded by art, so he's the perfect person to tell us what you can learn from the back, or verso, of a painting

Basic information
When you buy an artwork at a flea market, in a second-hand store or online, the basic information about the artwork isn't always known to the seller. That is why you should have a look at the back of the painting and see if it contains any information about the artist or when it was made. Many artists wrote down the title, location or a serial number on the back.

Age
When the age of a painting is not specified on the front or the back of the work, you can try to guess by looking at the colour of the canvas. Most paintings were made on white or off-white coloured canvases, but the fabric will change over time. The older the work, the more yellowish the back will look. Another way to find out is to see if the frame or back of the panel contains stickers of the supplier. These can give you insights on where and when the artist bought the materials and consequently lead you to when it was made. 

Stickers on the frame of back of the panel can give you information such as where and when an artist purchased their materials

Provenance
Usually, you can also find clues on who owned the work before and where it has been in the past by looking at the back of the painting. Most galleries and art dealers use stickers and barcodes. When a work has been on display in an exhibition in a museum, it usually also bears a label. With the information on the stickers, you can do your research or contact a gallery. When the works have been owned by a famous collector, shown in a prestigious museum or sold by an established gallery, they will be more valuable.

Restorations

The back of the painting can give you a hint as to whether the work has ever been restored, for example when you notice an area that is discoloured or with a different texture. But also when a canvas is lined, meaning a second canvas was attached to reinforce the original, it can signal that the work has been restored. The back tells you about the general condition of the canvas. If the back is all evenly smooth, it is still in good condition. But a waving, moulded or stained back means the painting’s condition is not mint anymore.   


Many artists used the back to write down the title, location or serial number of the painting
Unexpected surprises
Poor and struggling artists often reused their canvases if they didn’t have money for new ones. That is why a painting can sometimes be found on the back of another work, which will, of course, increase the value enormously. In 1989 for example, someone paid roughly €4 for a painting at a flea market, to discover at home that the back contained a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The lucky owner sold it for around €1.7 million at auction in 1991.

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