Paintings speak to us from both sides. The composition of the painting, artist’s signature and brushwork style draw our attention and kindle appreciation of and interest in a work of art. But those essential aspects tell only part of the story when assessing the value. In reality, the most important information is hiding on the back of the painting and can make a difference when it comes to buying.
Here are a few tips on what you can learn from the back of a painting, or the verso:
Believe it or not, the seller of an artwork at a flea market, in a second-hand store or online doesn’t always know what they have in hand. When you come across a work of art in one of these situations that engages your interest always have a look at the back of the painting and see if it contains any information about the artist or the date it was made. Artists, especially those from eras past, used the back of their artwork to write down the title, the location, date and/or an identification number.
Many artists add ad annum date to their signature on the artwork, and if not they affix on the back. Should the front or back of the artwork not feature an annum date you can try to guess the age by looking at the color of the canvas. Most paintings were made on white or off-white canvases. Like any fabric, its color will change over time with exposure to light and environmental conditions. A painting with a less than uniform yellowish back implies age – the deeper the color the older the work. Another thing to check is the frame. The frame, or back of the canvas/panel, will often contain the stickers of suppliers, which will tell where and when the artist bought the materials.
Know Your Stretcher – Nails or Staples
The stretcher is the group of four wooden bars placed together in the form of a square or a rectangle, found on the backside of a painting on canvas. The canvas is wrapped around the stretcher bars and pulled to make the canvas taut. The way that the canvas is secured to the stretcher will reveal information about the age of the canvas. If you have a painting that is attached to a stretcher with nails, then you probably have a canvas that dates to circa 1940 or earlier. It was a common method for artists to attach paintings to stretchers using nails on all four sides of a painting during the 1800s and into the early 1900s. If you have a painting on canvas that is attached to its stretcher with staples, then you have a painting—99 times out of 100—that was stretched sometime after 1940. Staples are used to attach the canvas to the wooden stretcher bars on all four sides using a traditional staple gun.
A reliable way to determine the value of a painting is to looking at the back to figure out who owned the artwork before and where it has been on display in the past. Generally, art dealers and galleries use stickers and barcodes to identify works they present for sale. Additionally, paintings that have been on display in an exhibition in a museum will usually bear a label. The information on such stickers can help you research the piece. Artworks that were once owned by a famous collector, sold by an established gallery or shown in a prestigious museum will be more valuable.
Always check the back of the painting to see if the work has ever been restored. You may notice an area that is discolored or has a different texture. When a canvas is lined, meaning a second canvas was attached to reinforce the original, it can signal that the work has been restored. If the back is all evenly smooth, it is still in good condition. A waving, molded or stained back means the painting’s condition is not mint anymore.
Artists, typically those that were struggling, often reused their canvases because they didn’t have money for new ones. Don’t be surprised then to find a painting on the back of another work, which may increase the value enormously.