Millions, Art, Fakes, and Blockchain

Millions, Art, Fakes, and Blockchain

Fritz Gallery image. Source: Fritz Gallery, Palm Beach, FL

Art, the thing besides genetics that makes us human. The cultural tradition we identify with and proudly put on display. An occasional visit to the local museum, or beauties we discover on our trips to foreign cultures immediately boost our feeling of sophistication.

But is art still art when copied? Do we still admire a piece of creation after we realize it’s not by who we thought it was? And (how) do we value authorship over techniques and aesthetics?

The art market — how much of it is fake?

A fake Franz Kline painting, “Untitled”, ended up in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. Source: The New York Times ArchiveA fake Franz Kline painting, “Untitled”, ended up in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. Source: The New York Times Archive

Just recently, the art community learned about a French museum finding out over half of its entire collection being forged. A few years ago, the famous Knoedler Gallery case with 80 million worth of art pieces being confirmed as fake rocked the New York and international art collector community. After having purchased a painting from Sotheby’s for $10 million which later turned out to be a forgery, the buyer has already been reimbursed the total fee. The list of fraudulent cases and (in)famous forgers goes on.

According to some estimates, up to 50% or even 70% of art pieces circulating the global market is being faked or forged. In museums and art institutions, where experts or connoisseurs usually do have the appropriate knowledge and means to judge the art piece’s authenticity before exhibiting it, still up to 10% of collections is estimated to be inauthentic.

For as long as there was demand, the supply has been following accordingly.

Apart from due diligence, how to verify authenticity?

A sample of a stereomicroscoped painting, analyzed by FAEI, SwitzerlandA sample of a stereomicroscoped painting, analyzed by FAEI, Switzerland

The art market is one of the largest unregulated markets, therefore authenticity investigation is strongly advised to buyers prior to a purchase, starting off with an extensive due diligence done with independent third parties. However, this is usually a complex and expensive process, besides, it does not completely prevent the buyers from purchasing artworks“authenticated” with fake documents.

An art piece can further be examined using forensics analysis, executed by institutes such as the Swiss FAEI and Sotheby’s Orion Institute. On the other hand, with provenance investigation or history of ownership, the details about previous owners can be tracked in documents or other sources.

Needless to say, both processes take plenty of time and even more money. Uncertain authenticity combined with the difficulty of confirming it lead to several issues for all stakeholders within the art market:

  • Even when buying from a trustworthy art institution or dealer, buyers risk a purchase of a forged artwork.

  • Scientific institutions providing authenticity analysis offer advanced solutions with certified reports, but risk forgery of documentation after entering the market.

  • Art institutions worry about unknowingly owning, auctioning and/or reselling pieces of doubtful origin, which could lead to subsequent refunds to the unintentionally deceived buyer, as well as the need to vindicate their reputation.

How can thus blockchain be a part of the solution?

The flow and transparency of information for all parties involved

As much as a buyer trusts the art institution or the dealer, as thoroughly as he might perform due diligence, and even having papers claiming to prove the art work’s authenticity, every offline and human-interfered market is always exposed to man-made forgeries and deceits.

The digital age has brought about a faster and broader accessibility of data, yet at the same time, it also made the latter increasingly vulnerable to hacks, exploits, and falsifications, up to the point where it is much harder to distinguish between the original and the fake.

The certified data should, therefore, be securely sealed and encrypted with no possibility of changing it without having the consensus of the owning or managing parties. At the same time, it should be made available to the public, verifiable and low-cost.

But how to manage and secure a singular, real-world tangible asset, like an artwork or its Certificate of Authenticity, digitally on the blockchain?

Here’s where 0xcert comes in…

0xcert — protocol for validating existence, authenticity, and ownership on the blockchain

0xcert protocol can act as an intermediary between issuers, holders, and skeptics. Source: 0xcert Whitepaper0xcert protocol can act as an intermediary between issuers, holders, and skeptics. Source: 0xcert Whitepaper

0xcert is an open-source, permission-less protocol for certified non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on the blockchain. The term non-fungible is the key here, since — in contrast to cryptocurrency tokens, each having the same value as all others — in turn, NFT represents a unique, real-world asset that cannot be substituted by another one.

In the process, the data about such asset, e. g. Certificate of Authenticity (COA), is digitized, stored in cryptographic wallets, and owned by their users. The detailed data itself can be accessed only by the owners. However, its existence, authenticity, and ownership can, in turn, be examined and validated by the interested public without any third-party involvement.

There are several key assets that 0xcert protocol offers wherever ownership and authenticity are of crucial importance:

1. Distribution of trust

By definition, blockchain works on decentralized nodes, storing data in a distributed manner, which makes their manipulation nearly impossible. Thus, it is appropriate for storing valuable information, sensitive records, valuable transactions and official paper archives. This is a wonderful thing, however, an even bigger asset of blockchain is trust, or more accurately, the distribution of trust. With the blockchain providing a trustless layer to the transactions, the participants do not need to rely on trusting each other. With credibility and reputation — and subsequently financial gains — being at stake frequently within the art market, trust is the major risk factor that blockchain successfully tackles.

2. Non-fungibility

Unlike the majority of recent crypto-projects which employ ERC-20 standard, 0xcert runs on ERC-721 standard, the one that fuels Cryptokitties, the project pioneering the crypto-collectibles ecosystem, with the focus on unique data imprint. Thus, every piece of a digital asset is irreplaceable, and its value is defined by the uniqueness of the data they carry. Just like there is no such thing as two originals of the same piece of art.

“Only Rembrandt can paint Rembrandt.” (Harry Donovan, the lead character in 1997 “Incognito” movie about art forgery).

3. Publicly accessible platform

Because of an open access to the platform and decentralized manner of storing data, anyone interested in checking the existence, ownership, and authenticity of, for example, an artwork can do so on their own terms without the involvement of a middleman. The data itself, however, is visible to its owners only, which leads to…

4. Privacy of information

guaranteed with the encryption of data, and secrecy for owners only. The exclusive access to the content is available only to the owner or the manager of the valuable asset, who can, on their sole discretion, transfer, burn or verify its digitized imprint.

5. Open-source protocol

The fully functional 0xcert protocol is available free of charge and offers options of minting, burning, verifying and transferring tokens to the interested public. Furthermore, the protocol uses a publicly accessible network of digital wallets and smart contracts, offering a plug-and-play type of usability.

This enables institutions like auction houses, museums, and galleries to develop their own blockchain-based data storage, certification, and management system while cutting down significantly time and costs.

Data — the currency of the future

While currency and monetary systems started the blockchain revolution, it is only logical to apply the same technology to other real-life assets as well.

Data — in its broadest meaning possible — is shaping the online and offline global market. Yet as much as we embrace the convenience of digitization of basically everything we know and value, we must — now more than ever — acknowledge the utmost relevance of authenticity, security, authorship, and originality.

Give credit where credit is due. Save yourself the trouble where it isn’t.