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How to build a more transparent art market – Part 1: Provenance

By Jonas Kasper Jensen

In this article, I will discuss how blockchain technology can be used to record the provenance of an artwork. The article is the first of a series of three. The second will elaborate on Digital Scarcity which is the ability to make digital art unique on a blockchain. The third article will look into Fractional Ownership which allows collectors to own fragments of an artwork.

While researching for this article, I asked the collector, Charles Ziegler, who is very outspoken about his collection on social media, about his view on provenance and he replied: “Great art no matter by whoever can’t be faked. You learn to tell in a heartbeat a fake when you see it… Only fools with no experience and a boatload of money get ripped off…”. This is obviously a controversial statement, but it might hold some truth. I will let it be up to you, the reader while reading the article to make your judgement.

An introduction to provenance

Provenance is the documentation that can be used to prove an artwork’s history, appraisal value and its creator. This record can, for example, be a series of documents that tells who the artist that made the work is, it can be a list of previous owners, and it can be the price history of the artwork.

Jessica wants, as an example, to buy a painting of a painter who lived in the 18th century. For Jessica, who is an experienced collector but not an expert, it is essential to have records that describe the history of the painting. The documentation of the history of the painting is its provenance record.

The provenance record cannot prove that the painting is genuine, but it can be used to build trust and confidence in the work. For this reason, the provenance record plays a central role in the handling of artworks. For the secondary art market, the ability to be able to prove that a work of art is genuine and not a fake is essential and therefore a well-documented provenance record is vital in the valuation of an artwork.

One can compare the provenance of artwork with the registry of ownership of land. If someone, for example, buys a piece of land in the United Kingdom, the sale will be recorded in a public database called “the HM Land Registry”, and the new owner will through this registry be able to prove that he/she owns the land. But in the art world, there is no centrally controlled database of artworks, and thus auction houses, organisations, museums and private collectors have to make and maintain provenance registries for artworks themselves. Getty Provenance Databases, NEPIP and the metropolitan museum of art collection database to name a few are providing the public with online provenance databases.

Art forgers often falsify provenance information (see IFAR provenance guide p. 2), and there are often cases on the secondary art market where a work that has been sold proves to be a fake. In the blockchain industry, some projects are trying to solve this problem and make a more convenient and secure way to record and store provenance. In the following, I will describe two projects as examples of how this can come about.

Codex Protocol

Codex Protocol has built a system where collectors and artists can store information about the provenance of a work of art into the Ethereum blockchain. Simply put, one can upload all information one has about an artwork into a Codex Record. This Codex Record can hold all information that exists of artwork from when and by whom it was made, images of the work, its condition, previous owner e.c.t. The owner of the record can choose what information he/she wants to be public and what information shall be confidential. The owner of the Codex Record can also choose to be anonymous. If something happens to the work, like a change of ownership, the Codex Record can be updated, and further documents can be added. Once again, the owner of the record can choose if the details of the changes can be seen by the public or not.

Artory

Artory has a slightly different approach to the recording of provenance on a blockchain. Artory lets collectors register artworks for verification by a certified expert. The expert ensures that the information given by the collector is correct and if the artwork is accepted, it’s provenance documents will be registered on the blockchain. The collector then gets a certification that he/she owns the given work and with it a record of the provenance of the work. This certificate can be used as proof for the owner that he/she owns the work. The collector will remain anonymous, and yet the work will be visible in the public Artory database. Just like in a Codex Record, the collector will be able to add documents to the private record; this could, for example, be sensitive information about the price and condition of the work.

Jonas Kasper Jensen, Provenance, 2019

Why is blockchain such a big deal

Using blockchain technology to store provenance give collectors, museum and artists a new way to ensure that the information about an artwork has not been manipulated. Since it is possible to see when changes have been made to a record in the shape of hashes on the blockchain one can always go back in the history of the provenance of the work and prove that changes have been made. Also, the owner of a work can stay anonymous and still provide the public with information about a work. If the art world adopts provenance on the blockchain, one could easily imagine one de(central) database of artworks that can be used for reference in regards to sales, research and education.

As I mentioned already, the provenance of an artwork is no proof that the work is authentic. It is easy to imagine a scenario where a painting is wrongly dated or said to be made by an artist that it is not. DUST identity, which is in partnership with Codex Protocol is an example of a solution that can help with this. They are letting collectors spray tiny particles of diamond dust on to their artworks and thus tack them with a physical “code” that can be linked to the digital blockchain identity of the work.

Lastly, a living artist can utilise this new technology to create a record proving that he or she is the artist behind a work. So, registering artworks on the blockchain can work as a sort of copyright mechanism for artists. And with this, there opens a new realm of rights and possibilities. An example already being explored is the automation of resale rights to artists when their works are sold on the secondary market and provision when works are shown in public. How this will evolve and what benefits provenance on the blockchain will bring is yet to see.

Conclusion

Going back to Charles Ziegler’s statement may conclude that experienced collectors might be able to train their knowledge and senses to know when they see a genuine work of art. If one looks closely enough on the strokes, colour shades and composition of known artists it will probably be possible, but, for the art world in general and the artists, in particular, this new technology has the potential to revolutionise how we understand and make history around a work of art. In the end, the history and especially the myth around an artwork is often just as important as the work itself.

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