The promise of provenance


What do advocates of blockchain technology promise? Transparency and security.

What do critics of the art world say it lacks? Transparency and security.

Hold on. I’ve got an idea.

Christie’s is to become the first global auctioneer to apply blockchain technology to the art market. It will employ blockchain-secured art registry service, Artory, for an upcoming $300m sale of American modernist art. 

Artory offers its users a secure, art-centric blockchain-enabled database where it stores “highly trusted, vetted data about artworks,” as well as, “significant events in the lifecycle of artworks.” Blockchain can - and should - be used to bolster buyer confidence in a market which is, at best, opaque and, at worst, murky as hell. 

Artory’s service will allow users and potential buyers to view the transaction history and provenance of a work in the auction before bidding. Collectors who register their artworks for sale will benefit from being able to offer their buyers increased transparency and security, whilst remaining anonymous if they wish, as owner information will not be stored on the database.

Christie's says this is an experiment not a commitment, with CIO Richard Entrup commenting:

“Our pilot collaboration with Artory is a first among the major global auction houses, and reflects growing interest within our industry to explore the benefits of secure digital registry via blockchain technology.”

Thus, whilst this isn’t a giant leap, this is a small but significant step in the right direction the nascent blockchain sector towards adoption and proof of utility.

Whilst its theory may be potentially groundbreaking, blockchain is doubted by some. They say it’s yet to convincingly prove its real world value or application in practise. Tech commentators have called it meaningless, crappy and bullshit. So it will be fascinating to see the outcome of this trial, what benefits can be developed and what further synergies can be found between art and blockchain. The relationship seems to be a good fit.

Art is, perhaps, a more natural application for blockchain than other industries. Service industries, such as insurance and finance for example, are having to adapt cumbersome legacy technologies in order to marry up with blockchain capabilities. Something about the physical, singular nature of a painting makes the use of a registration system more attractive. This isn’t contracting trillions of financial transactions. It’s registering the details of thousands of works of art. The scale is easier to comprehend. Hence, the application and upside seem tangible.

Ironically, technology could help fix a problem that technology caused. Debate around provenance has been rife since stencils, lasers, printers and computers started churning out multiples for the likes of Picasso, Warhol and Basquiat. How many multiples Warhol ever truly made will never truly be known. Picasso’s stamp was likely used by many of his assistants. Practises like this lead to controversy and confusion. A secure database, which cannot be altered once an entry has been entered, could end disputes about provenance once and for all.

One area of the art market where blockchain is already having an impact is in digital art, where distributed ledger technology is offering a self-contained eco-system that is decentralised, secure and democratic. Buyers and owners of digital works of art can already access a secure online database that details the provenance of works, a history of payments and copyright as part of one holistic platform.

Whether this approach can be transferred to non-digital remains to be seen. In spite of the technology’s promise, I’d assume entries onto the blockchain will still have to rely on traditional methods of valuation, authentication, sale and purchase. Put simply, blockchain isn’t much more than a heavily guarded filing cabinet, and if the files placed inside are falsified, it doesn’t matter how tightly that filing cabinet is locked.

Pessimism aside, this is an exciting development and it’s important that we let the mind boggle at the potential possibilities for collaboration and integration. As mentioned, as yet, proven real world applications of blockchain are rare. The potential in finance, law and insurance is great but, for now, and for the next few years at least, they are conjecture, nothing more.

The art market offers a tantalising glimpse of one potential use for blockchain. It could add real value in the near term to an industry that is searching for a solution to a problem of trust as it continues to grow apace. The integration of future technologies is one way to maintain that growth rate as it will both reinforce trust whilst engaging with younger generations.

Above all, Christie's should be applauded for its leadership and bravery. It’s hard being first. Hopefully, it’s just the beginning. 

Edward PlayfairComment