Why The Art World Is Looking To Blockchain For Tracking And Provenance

Image by Anton Ivanov

The art world is generally forward-thinking. Artists bring us the avant-garde, the ideas and styles we don’t even know we need yet.

But the art community as a whole is far behind when it comes to tracking and provenance for artwork.

The current state of affairs is archaic and convoluted. Pieces of paper and individually-kept records are the only way to track an artwork, leading to massive opportunities for forgers and thieves in the art world.

While it can be intimidating to change a system that’s existed for so many years, it’s necessary. And we finally have a technology that will allow us to improve the entire system, without changing what we love so much about the art community.

That technology is blockchain, and it’s powering a new way to track the provenance of artwork.

Good art provenance doesn’t really exist at the moment.

As the Fine Arts Expert Institute puts it:

“Often the provenance of a work of art is incomplete or unknown, documentation is missing, expert opinions disagree and attributions change with time, with sometimes considerable consequences for the valuation of the object in question.”

It’s clear the current system needs an overhaul.

Provenance today is proven with physical pieces of paper or is tracked through siloed databases kept by various entities. You could drive a truck full of forged Corot paintings through the holes in the systems.

A main reason for that is because artwork doesn’t always stay put. The art may travel from its creator’s hands to a gallery, on to an auction house, and then to a collector. Some collectors then loan out their privately-owned works to museums. And all of this exchange is documented on paper, spreadsheets, emails, or individual records.

Under the current system, there’s no way to connect these fragmented bits of data. In other words, it’s easy to manipulate and lose records of the provenance.

We need a new method for verification.

The reason we’re looking to blockchain technology at the Blockchain Art Collective is because it has several useful qualities.

To start, it is able to aggregate all the scattered records and siloed databases. The records from the artist, the gallery, the auction house, and the collector can be brought together on one system. And those records are immutable. Once they’re registered on the blockchain, it’s impossible to manipulate or change them in any way.

Blockchain can also protect the privacy of those involved in the transactions.

When a new work of art is registered by an artist, and then sold, the record on blockchain won’t disclose the buyer’s information. Instead, it may record something like, “Owned by collector,” followed by a string of 11 encrypted numbers.

This is done using zero-knowledge proofs, or zk-SNARKs. This a form of cryptography that proves possession of certain information without revealing that information, and without any interaction between the prover and verifier. Which means the artwork could still be traced back to the artist, but the identity of the collector is protected.

The blockchain will also preserve an artwork’s history.

Many artworks live multiple lives, moving from a gallery to an auction house and then to a collector.

On a blockchain, that artwork’s record will be registered and built over time. So, as the work is bought and sold, each transaction becomes a part of the artwork’s recorded history.

How do we ensure that? Because each work of art will be tagged with a tamper-proof, NFC-enabled, adhesive, certificate of authenticity (COA) linking the physical asset to its record on blockchain.

If the information is just floating somewhere out in the ether without anything to tie it back to the physical object it’s representing, then a piece of the puzzle is still missing. The artwork could still be swapped out for a forgery or a transaction could be faked.

This happens more than you may think.

I know a San Francisco-based artist who was exhibiting at a well-known gallery in the city.

And just down the street, a dealer was selling rip-offs of her works. There was nothing she could do about it. She didn’t have the funds to take legal action, and she had no way of proving these works weren’t hers — any more than the dealer could prove they were his.

If her works were registered on blockchain and marked with a COA, she could have laid claim to the work as her own and stopped people like him from selling rip-offs.

The community must come together to implement this technology.

Change is always a little frightening.

People who make a living authenticating artwork may be wary of a blockchain system. But this technology only makes their practices stronger, increasingly differentiated, and more forward-thinking. Someone will always have to verify any piece of art before we put a COA on the back of it. This simply allows them to offer better provenance to dealers and collectors.

We’re not out to turn everything upside down or “disrupt” the art world. We’re just trying to make improvements to what already exists. And that’s going to take participation from everyone in the community.

We need artists, collectors, authenticators, and dealers to embrace this system if we want it to succeed.

Because if it does succeed, we’re going to have unprecedented provenance and record keeping within the art world. And that’s something everyone, except forgers and con artists, should be excited about.

Thanks for reading!

Our team is excited to work with artists to digitize their artwork.

To try it for yourself, get a starter kit and blockchain-based certificate of authenticity here.

You can also follow us on Instagram @blockchainartcollective.