Art Provenance With IOTA

Daniel D. Barber
Nov 2 · 5 min read

This is an idea in motion and I welcome input and feedback from the community. I wish to address the primary concerns of art provenance in a simple and low-cost method which works for artists, owners and gallery goers — all concerned really. The following method might even allow for artists (or legacy holders) to continue collecting royalties on their work after it leaves their hands. If anyone strong on the IOTA technical side wants to help build this out, please contact me! Read on.

IOTA is a Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) that is trustless, feeless, immutable, scalable and future-proof (read quantum-resistant). It is still in development but is soon expected to be fully decentralized and to support smart contracts among many other capabilities. Its intent is to be the protocol on top of which the Internet Of Things (IOT) runs and is already being groomed as the standard by the Object Management Group (OMG). Check out the blog of the IOTA Foundation, a German non-profit, for more information.

“Ceres” By Dan Barber. 2'x4' wood stain

The primary concerns of provenance in art are establishing:

  • Production, creation, or discovery circumstances and legitimacy
  • Establishing history of ownership, custody and conditions of storage
  • Establishing moral and legal validity of chain of custody

Provenance done right can go a long way towards destroying black markets for forgeries and thefts and can help the rightful owners or families reclaim ownership of artwork or other precious items taken by force. A clean provenance can sometimes increase an object’s sale price by an order of magnitude. Provenance of art, antiquities, wine and other items of high value is clearly important.

The question then is how to do provenance right?

Other blockchain models exist for storing data, and therefore provenance, immutably. However, with quantum computing and artificial intelligence technologies in their adolescence, blockchain may not be immune for much longer. This is why the quantum-resistance of IOTA is of interest in this use case.

IOTA For Provenance — How It Might Work

A Unique IOTA Wallet For Each Piece Of Art

Each individual piece of art is assigned an IOTA wallet by the artist. This wallet is kept by the artist, their estate, or the current keeper of that artist’s legacy; this wallet is never to be transferred to the owner of the object, unless that owner also inherits the legacy of the artist. Using IOTA’s Masked Authenticated Messaging (MAM), the artist can add all the pertinent information about the artwork (creation date, location, medium, methods, circumstances, etc) into IOTA as a transaction.

For older pieces with an already established history, this provenance can inserted with the initial transactions of the new wallet.

This information must be stored on an IOTA permanode.

The Art Piece — Two Factor Authentication — Part One

Each piece of art would carry with it a permanently attached QR code which stores one piece of a 2FA code. This code should allow visitors to galleries to read the provenance of the piece using a smart device, but would not allow for any kind of ownership transfer; I.E. read-only. A QR code or other non-powered method of holding data is preferred as batteries have a limited lifetime in comparison to the lifetime value of artwork. Possession of the art piece, by itself, does not confer ownership.

A customised app could be built using the code from the MAM Explorer or similar project to pull and present the entire provenance in a user-friendly manner. An example interface and interaction here.

The Owner Certificate — Two Factor Authentication — Part Two

The owner would hold a certificate containing the second piece to the 2FA. By itself, this code would also be read-only, and would also allow for a full review of provenance. Possession of the certificate, by itself, does not confer ownership.

2FA

Only when both codes are used together could transactions be sent to the object’s wallet. This prevents the claiming of ownership simply by stealing or taking by force either the art piece or the certificate.

Simple protocols could manage this when a sale is made, requiring the seller to insert the ‘sold’ transaction first and only then allow the buyer to claim ownership. The holder of the object’s wallet could validate the sale.

The provenance, read-only by all who see the artwork, would, in fact, provide details to prospective buyers on whom to contact in order to make the offer, if the item is for sale at all, and asking price.

The sale could be brokered by the artist (or legacy-holders) as a stipulation of sale, allowing the artist to continue earning money from their work with a percentage of every sale. IOTA, of course, makes it very easy to transfer value, though a separate wallet held by the artist should probably be used. I’m guessing sale contracts like this could be managed by Qubic (https://qubic.iota.org/).

As mentioned above, art could be listed for sale in their provenance which then makes possible an entire IOTA-powered art, wine or antiquities marketplace. This, of course, would require third-party apps and services which could query IOTA permanodes and hold other data not necessarily required for provenance (pictures, videos, etc) which buyers would want to see.

Updating Provenance

The details of how the 2FA would work together to allow transactions to be sent to a receive address for a wallet held by a third party needs to be designed. This goes back to the reusable address ‘issue’ that is inherent to IOTA’s quantum-resistance.

I know that receive address aliases are being considered and worked on. Two other ideas that might (or might not) work for art provenance:

  • Wallets that can be tagged as receive-only wallets so the send address can never be used. This would allow for provenance to be written without concern that the wallet would ever be compromised.
  • Allow for artwork wallets to be queried from other wallets for a new receive address. I.E. IOTA has an API that allows third parties to query wallets for a new ‘receive address’ to which they can then send funds, and therefore receive addresses are never re-used.

Both of these methods would allow for a scheme by which the 2FA could work for updating provenance, though I don’t know if or how they could work with IOTA’s protocol.

Transfer Of Ownership

Of course, there is always the manual method which for transfer of ownership may be the best method anyway — the buyer of the artwork would contact the artist (details for contact would be in the provenance) and request an address to which to send the IOTA.

Upon sale, a new certificate would need to be generated by the wallet holder and sent to the new owner.

Starting A Conversation

I know there are probably many difficulties that I have not considered. Please feel free to correct my understanding of how IOTA works and can be used for this purpose. I’m very keen on the idea of artists continuing to collect on their art (having some art for sale, myself), and I think this falls right under the banner of General Good that IOTA wishes to achieve for the world.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Daniel D. Barber

Written by

Re-thinker. Educator. Author. Artist.

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