When researching the provenance of a painting, the artist’s signature is important, but it is not always the only clue. Gaining further insight into where a painting has been after its creation, through whose hands it has passed, or in front of whose eyes, can help us to build a picture of its history and most importantly its provenance. These clues are often hidden from sight, on the back of the canvas or panel.

15th century panel labelsAbove: labels on the back of a 15th century panel 

Our conservators go to great lengths to ensure these aspects are protected throughout the conservation process, ensuring that no clues are lost. This article will highlight the importance of the documentation found on the back of paintings, as well as the treatments used by conservators to ensure their ongoing preservation.

canvas stamps sealsAbove: examples of a stamp and wax seal typically found on the back of a canvas 

Labels and stamps

Piecing together the provenance helps to establish its origins and previous owners, providing context to assist in its appraisal for valuation or cultural significance. Upon examining the back of a painting, these clues may be found through insignia handwritten notes as well as labels from the canvas manufacturer, framer or colourmen.

Colourmen label examplesAbove: typical labels found on panels and canvas stretcher bars noting the origin of the materials from colourmen or manufacturers 

More importantly, it is possible to trace its exhibition history if there are gallery or museum labels present. These labels typically include the name, title, date, and inventory number of the artwork, as well as the address of the venue where it was displayed.

14th century painting labelsAbove: two 14th century oil paintings on panel from the front (recto) and behind (verso) – the labels on the reverse list their historic cataloging notes and museum references 

Through labels you may also determine if the painting has been sold at an auction house. These institutions tend to assign a new inventory number to each piece. Historically, these numbers were marked with stencils or chalk and are now often labelled with barcodes, making classification easier for the auction house.

Canvas noteAbove: a handwritten note on the back of a canvas from a 19th century restorer, it records that they transferred the painting from panel to canvas in 1864

Additionally, labels might indicate the painting’s journey through border controls and customs. It may also note inspections and treatments by past conservators.

LabelsAbove: an example of the various labels a painting may collect over time in sales, exhibitions and museum care

Notes and handwritten features

Sometimes, surprises appear on the back of a painting. Handwritten notes from the artists themselves, their relatives, or the first buyer can appear on the canvas or panel backing. These can not only confirm the authenticity of a work but can also add to its value, as would a collector’s mark.

Personal noteAbove: a handwritten note found on the back of a portrait, recording details of the artist, sitter and date

For heirlooms, we frequently see notes diligently put together for a painting by a previous owner or family member. These often list a family tree or the assumed name of the sitter. This is always a helpful aspect for future generations, who may not otherwise know the sentimental and domestic value of an artwork.

Misattributed and forged labels

In some cases it is important to interpret a label or canvas note with caution. Our studio often witnesses 19th century or modern copies of Old Master paintings, these sometimes only list the original artist’s name and not the copyist. Copies may be very good and have their own high value, especially if they have a link or close historic period with the original.

Sabine women copyAbove: an example of a typical Old Master copy – you can find out more about painting copies here 

If you are uncertain about the artist’s name being correct or suspect a copy, we recommend conducting a Google image search to see if the original composition is currently in a museum collection. It may also be the case that you discover the name on the canvas has been misattributed and is in fact a copy of another artist’s work. This will still help with future sales and valuations of the work. If you are left uncertain, we recommend speaking to an authentication expert or local auction house.

Correggio labelsAbove: multiple labels found on the back of a 17th century panel by David Teniers the Younger entitled Old Age in Search of Youth, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some labels and notes are not so innocently misinterpreted. It is possible that art forgers have been purposely misleading, making the back of their canvas or panel appear to be aged, beaten up and worn down to try and convince the art world of its authenticity. Again, an authentication expert or auction house should be able to advise. Our conservators can offer their own comments via technical analysis – a scientific interpretation of the painting’s possible age and materials.

Collectors marks

When a collector acquires a painting, especially in the past, it was common to mark the work with a stamp, particularly for works on paper or drawings. Depending on the collector, this stamp certifies the artwork’s authenticity and can drastically increase its value.

Canvas labelAbove: a historic art dealer’s label found on the back of an 18th century oil painting 

Such is the case with Durand-Ruel. Paul Durand-Ruel was one of the most important collectors of his time. He was instrumental in introducing the public to Impressionists such as Monet, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, and others. Durand Ruel (1831–1922) began his career by taking over his father’s gallery in France, initially specialising in very conventional works.

Label detailsAbove: detail of a label on the back of a painting, this one comes with a helpful warning to prevent it being removed from the artwork to retain provenance 

Durand-Ruel grew to appreciate the work of artists from the Barbizon School such as Courbet and Delacroix, who were not well-received by the academicians. However, with the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, he and his family relocated to London. It was there that he first befriended Claude Monet and later other notable artists mentioned above. That was a turning point; he began organising exhibitions to gradually introduce these artists to the wider world. Despite many criticisms, Impressionist painting became highly sought after.

14th century saintsAbove: markings on the back of a 14th century icon that suggest it belonged to ‘AD’ – Albrecht Dürer

Durand Ruel acquired over 5,000 works, which he kept or sold. To manage this vast collection, he catalogued and assigned his label to them, recording where, to whom, and when he bought and sold them. A work featuring a Durand-Ruel label not only certifies its prestige but also validates its provenance. Today, artworks that passed through the hands of this collector are sold for millions of dollars and are highly sought after.

Handwritten painting noteAbove: a personal note suggesting that the painting was a gift, details like these can also bring value to an artwork if they have an interesting or influential story behind them

Preserving painting labels, stamps and inscriptions

In our conservation practice, the preservation of labels, stamps, and inscriptions is approached with meticulous care, recognising the immense value these elements add to the artwork’s provenance and authenticity. Our conservators will never alter the original state of a label, to make sure the authenticity is not compromised.

Canvas label stability

While each piece is unique, requiring tailored preservation measures, we typically protect important and fragile labels or inscriptions. This is often achieved by applying a layer of Melinex; a transparent, archival-quality polyester film. This guards against dust, handling, and environmental damage, ensuring important notes and markers remain intact.

Label preservation

Whilst some galleries or collectors might choose to wash and enclose labels in a plastic pocket, we focus on safeguarding these elements through non-invasive techniques. By using Melinex, we ensure that the artwork’s history is preserved without the need for physical alteration or removal from its original setting.

Canvas back after restorationAbove: the back of a painting before and after restoration, although the backing has been replaced our conservator has ensured that the labels are retained and visible 

Our conservation approach not only maintains the integrity of these documents as vital components of the artwork but also ensures they are protected for future generations. This method allows us to deliver conservation services that respect the artwork’s integrity while addressing the needs and concerns of our clients.

Damaged noteAbove: the note above is from the back of a Godfrey Kneller portrait, it was damaged in a house fire and required conservation treatments alongside the rest of the artwork

How can we help?

If you have any questions about art restoration and conservation, please do not hesitate to get in touch. As part of our service we offer a nationwide collection and delivery service as well as information on worldwide shipping to our studio. E-mail us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576 for more information.

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