Introducing the Mattereum Asset Passport

James Hester
Nov 19, 2019 · 11 min read

By Dr James Hester FRSA — Head of Ontology & Provenance, Mattereum

This is Part 1 of The Mattereum Manifesto. Be sure to read Part 2: “Engineering Consumption” and Part 3: “Knowledge is Power”.

Here’s an opportunity to get to grips with what the Mattereum Asset Passport is, and how it works.

Our Head of Ontology, Dr James Hester, spends quality time on WW1 battlefields in uniform, reliving the past and coming to grips with it. This is when he is not in medieval armour whacking people with great big swords. Really, he should be our Head of Ontology and Time Travel. On one of these expeditions, he recovered an artefact, and we are documenting more than a century of this item’s history using the Mattereum Asset Passport.

I hope you will find that this practical example puts together the whole idea nicely. It’s just the start.

After serving as Royal Armouries Curator of Collections at the Tower of London, and later completing my PhD interpreting how medieval arms and armour was used by examining traces of battle damage, I joined the team at Mattereum to put my training in understanding and documenting objects to a fascinating new purpose.

In the world of art and antiquities, curators and dealers try to compile everything that it is possible to know about an object, since doing so will not only enhance and reinforce its cultural value, but also (especially for the dealers) its monetary value. A doodle on a napkin may not seem very interesting or valuable. However, when we realise that it was drawn by Picasso in 1930 to pay his bill at a café, then suddenly an otherwise insignificant object becomes very significant indeed.

Provenance is another vital aspect of an object’s overall identity which can have an enormous impact on an object’s value. Tracing an object’s provenance — its history of ownership ideally all the way back to its creation — begins with the present and works backwards. Understanding where an object has been is essential for a number of reasons. A pair of limited edition Air Jordans is very different from a pair of the same which Jordan actually wore when the Bulls won the championship. For manufactured goods, it could mean the difference between a properly made product and one where corners were cut and quality standards ignored. Provenance also provides information about an object’s past which could have important ramifications. If the object was stolen, created using prohibited materials, or produced in illegal or unethical conditions, unaware owners might not be able to escape trouble by simply pleading ignorance.

The same is true for any object. Lacking sufficient knowledge, a person might fail to appreciate its utility or value. But by gathering together all of the data relating to that object into one place, we can make much more informed decisions about the things we buy, sell, and use.

One particularly important questions is, of course, how to tell whether the doodle on the napkin is actually by Picasso, and not by someone trying to profit from making you believe that it is. Today, the authenticity of an object — when there is no one currently alive who bore witness to its manufacture — is determined in many sectors by experts. As consumers, we are told that the opinions of these experts can be trusted due to their reputation in the field, gained from years of experience. But even the most knowledgeable expert can make a mistake, or a charlatan may attempt to pose as an expert. And when this happens, apart from some damage to the expert’s reputation, the buyer often has little to no means of seeking compensation for the error or misleading information.

The smart contracts contained in the Mattereum Asset Passport provide a solution to this asymmetric dynamic. Expert opinions regarding all aspects of an object are still sought and gathered together, but they are supported by indemnities which must be signed by anyone providing such an opinion. So by making experts put some skin in the game in the form of a sum of money which they are bound to pay out if their statement turns out to be false, we add an extra layer of protection for buyers and and extra layer of deterrence for fraud. So if an assertion made about an object is found to be untrue, the buyer is compensated: it’s true, or you can sue.

So, how do we do it?

To show how all this works, let’s follow an object through the process of receiving a Mattereum Asset Passport.

Image for post
Image for post

Our object is this seemingly insignificant piece of mangled brass. It is, in fact, a spent French rifle cartridge dating back to the early days of the First World War. As a member of a living history group which portrays the life of soldiers in the First World War, I have the honour to visit the Western Front regularly to take part in ceremonies commemorating those who took part in the conflict. On one such visit to the Somme this year for the memorial to the infamous battle which began on 1 July 1916, I discovered this cartridge in a pile of soil excavated as part of the works being done on the site where our encampment was set up. A surprising amount of information can be extracted from this piece thanks to a combination of numerous factory marks and the context in which it was found.

It’s a perfect candidate to showcase the range of information an Asset Passport can contain, and how we go about taking it through the three primary phases of an Asset Passport’s lifecycle: Generation, Population, and Activation.

Generation: Creating a Mattereum Asset Passport

This particular cartridge forms part of my personal collection. As the owner, I am responsible for taking the initial steps for creating an Asset Passport. If this were a newly manufactured object, the individual or company who made it could take this step. However, since our cartridge is over a century old, it’s not really a practical option in this case.

To generate a passport, I have to supply a minimum set of information about the object. If the owner knows a lot about their object, they can supply as much data as they feel comfortable providing. But since each assertion will be supported by a smart contract which hold them financially liable in the event that any information turns out to be inaccurate, owners are welcome to leave the details to later certifiers who are more specialised in a given asset type (as we’ll discuss later).

The bare minimum amount of information I, as the owner, have to provide includes a general object name, measurements, proof of ownership, a general condition report, and some reference photos. In this case, since I have a bit of extra subject knowledge about these things, I’m able to add a few more bits of data that I’m comfortable standing behind. So here’s a look at some of the information I’d supply to Mattereum at the start.

Portion of the cartridge’s data sheet
General reference photo of the cartridge. These photos are an essential part of documenting an object in preparation for issuing a Mattereum Asset Passport
Detail reference photo of cartridge rim. Objects are photographed at all angles, with particular attention paid to details which provide additional information or serve as unique identifiers. Notice also that each photo is uniquely identified so that it can be matched to descriptions in the Asset Passport.
Section of Mattereum’s Certifier Contract (which I, as the owner/certifier, would sign) confirming the information provided about the cartridge.

All of the information here is converted into XML format for ease of storage on an IPFS server (along with digital copies of the relevant physical documentation). Each point of information — we refer to them as “certifications” — is supported by contracts affirming the validity of the assertion, and committing to an indemnity for that assertion proportionate to the value of the object, the impact of the information on the object’s identity, and the degree of certainty the owner is willing to claim. With this data placed on the blockchain, and the appropriate smart contracts created to support the certifications, the cartridge’s Asset Passport is generated.

Population: Adding more data with the help of experts

So now we have an Asset Passport for our cartridge, but there are still a lot of gaps in our available information on what it is and where it has been. This is where we tap into the vast stores of knowledge held by subject experts around the world to further populate the Asset Passport with data. At Mattereum, we call these experts “certifiers”.

Owners can seek out certifiers to provide certifications about their objects. Alternatively, certifiers who have already established a presence in the Mattereum ecosystem can locate newly created listings for objects within their areas of specialism and provide certifications independently. To attach a certification to an object, certifiers will follow the same procedure as owners when they supplied the initial information at the generation phase (owners are, in essence, also certifiers in a manner of speaking).

Each certification is backed up by a smart contract stating the nature of the indemnity the certifier is willing to place behind their statement. Additionally, certifiers can set a fee which must be paid in order to activate a certification so that subsequent owners can enjoy the coverage offered. And, yes, current owners can set fees for their certifications as well, so that they can continue to profit from their knowledge even after the object has been sold on to several future owners.

Returning to our cartridge, I, as the owner, sought out a colleague who was a specialist in the history of the site on which it was discovered. As an added bonus, he was also present when I uncovered it, so was in a position to act as a witness to provide an additional support to my claims of lawful discovery and ownership.

So our certifier is able to add two further certifications to the cartridge’s Asset Passport. First, a witness statement claiming that he saw me discover the cartridge in the way in which I had previously described (as shown below). Second, and far more interesting, he is able to tell us a lot more about where it came from, and how it got to where it was found.

As it happens, the area of the Somme where the cartridge was found (La Boisselle, on the outskirts of Albert), was only occupied by the French Army for four months before the British took over this part of the Western Front for the Allies. Furthermore, military records tell us that there were eight units of the French Army present in La Boisselle during this time. So by virtue of where our cartridge was found, we can confirm with authority that it was fired between September 1914 and January 1915 by a French soldier from one of eight units, which led it to be discarded and, over a century later, recovered by a history buff paying homage to their memory. All of this information is formatted, stored, and backed up with smart contracts using the same process described earlier.

Witness statement affirming the discovery and ownership of the cartridge.
French soldiers of the 118e régiment d’infanterie at La Boisselle (1915).
Members of the 10th Essex Regiment WW1 Living History Group with French reenactors at La Boisselle for the 2019 commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (I’m the chap farthest right).

This process repeats itself for as many certifiers as appear to attach certifications to the object. The unique identifiers created by this process to represent the sum total of all data on the object, as well as the indemnities against the statements’ validity which lay out the modes of recourse should any information turn out to be false, combine to form the fully-formed Mattereum Asset Passport. In the cases where there are privacy concerns, the existence of certified data can be proved by a hash or a series of hashes placed on chain without the data itself being made public.

Activation: Bringing the Asset Passport into play

The full potential of the Mattereum Asset Passport becomes apparent when an object is sold or otherwise transferred to another owner.

So let’s say that I decide to sell my cartridge to another collector. First off, having far more information about the object than I would have on my own, I am in a position to ask for a price much closer to its actual value. Buyers have the ability to peruse the Asset Passport to have a greater understanding of what it is they are potentially buying. Below, you can see some examples of the user interface from our cartridge’s Mattereum Asset Passport. It is also possible to view the certification details of assertions made about the object.

As part of the sale, the buyer has the option, for an added premium on top of the base sale price, to activate the Asset Passport and receive the coverage offered by the numerous certifications. The buyer can choose to activate all of the certifications, or simply those which they prefer (since not all points of information will be relevant to all buyers). Certifiers are paid from the added premium whenever their certification is activated.

Once an Asset Passport is generated, the population and activation processes repeat for the duration of the object’s existence. As more information comes to light, more certifications are attached by certifiers. With each new owner, certifications are activated, meaning those owners enjoy added protection against inaccurate information about their goods, and certifiers enjoy a recurring stream of income in exchange for the knowledge which they have shared.

The true beauty of the Mattereum Asset Passport lies in its versatility. Here, we have demonstrated its capabilities using a bit of antique brass only really exciting to history nerds such as myself. But using the same procedures and the same mechanisms, it is possible to assign Asset Passports to any class of object ranging from priceless artwork, to aerospace components, to the device on which you’re currently reading this.

No matter what the object is, the Mattereum Asset Passport can document it in a secure, reliable manner which ensures that vital data is preserved, that experts can derive value from their knowledge in ways not previously possible, and that consumers will have the necessary object knowledge to make the best use of the things they have.

Be sure to read the other two instalments of the Mattereum Manifesto: “Engineering Consumption” and “Knowledge is Power”.

If you would like read more about Mattereum’s near-term plans, please read about our upcoming project with William Shatner to do authentication and provenance for the collectibles market.

Thank you for reading, and we hope you enjoyed the ride! Want to know more? Here are our whitepaper and our Telegram group.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store