There is often information of the backs of prints that tells us about the earlier history of the print. For example, many collectors have been in the habit of stamping their prints with their own identifying mark. Knowing how to identify these marks can tell you about the provenance (history of ownership) of the print. There is a standard dictionary of collector's stamps that helps identify these marks (Frits Lugt, Les Marques de Collections de Dessins et d'Estampes, Amsterdam, 1921, and the Supplément, 1956). Here are a few macrophotographs of collector's marks from prints in the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art:
Three collector's stamps are visible in this detail from the back of Lucas van Leyden's engraving, The Return of the Prodigal Son. The larger stamp to the left (Lugt Supplement, no. 1561a) is the collector's mark of Max Kade (1882-1967) whose donation to the Spencer Museum of Art forms the backbone of our old master print collection. The middle stamp (Lugt no. 94) belongs to Atherton Curtis and his wife, Louise Burleigh Curtis, who collected during the second half of the 19th century in New York and who authored several books on printmaking. The stamp to the right (Lugt no. 119) is the stamp of the important French print editor and publisher Ambroise Firmin-Didot (1790-1876). These collector's marks tell us that the print passed through the collections of Firmin-Didot, the Curtises, and Max Kade, almost certainly in that order. Lugt gives a great deal of detailed information on each of these collectors.
Collector's marks can be quite complex, as in this example identified with the collection of Louis Galichon (1829-1893, Lugt no. 1061). This example is also on the back of the Spencer Museum's impression of Lucas van Leyden's engraving, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
It is not always possible to identify a collector's mark with certainty. The mark with the letters "A" and "B" flanking a flower is very similar to Lugt, Supplément no. 79b, the mark of Dr. Albert Blum (1882-1952). It is probably a variant of Blum's mark. The other mark "Sammlung Dr. B." (Dr. B. Collection) is not in Lugt at all, but it could also be a mark of Dr. Blum. These appear on the back of an impression of Dürer's Betrayal of Christ from the Engraved Passion of 1508.
This is one of the more famous collector's marks. It is the hand written signature of Pierre Mariette II (1634-1716, Lugt no.1790) a member of an important family of print dealers. This example is found on a print by Jan Sadeler (The Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus).