May 30, 2024

ARTnews: Blockchain Provenance Tracking Promises More Than Eliminating Forgeries and Risk From the Art Market

 ARTnews: Blockchain Provenance Tracking Promises More Than Eliminating Forgeries and Risk From the Art Market

As Damien Hirst demonstrated late last month, it’s not just Old Masters specialists who are troubled by dating artworks—dodgy paperwork can make determining the true origins of paintings and sculptures by living artists equally tricky. It was therefore serendipitous that London-based Artclear, a new blockchain company for recording indelible digital certificates of authenticity for physical artworks, recently demonstrated its technology to journalists.

There are a handful of recently founded tech companies vying for position in the provenance tracking space, each relying on blockchain for securely recording information but offering different routes to guaranteeing artwork origin. Artclear, launched in 2020 and entirely funded by angel investors, has developed a patented scanner in partnership with printing giant Hewlett-Packard (HP) Inc. that captures microscopic images of paintings to create digital “fingerprints.” These are then used to provide “unbreakable and tamperproof” certificates of authenticity.

Last month, the company set up two portable scanners in the John Martin Gallery in London to issue certificates for an exhibition of paintings by British artist Andrew Gifford. Similar in size to a digital piano, each scanner has a 1:1 macro lens on the end of a robotic arm that slowly moves to selected points on the canvas and takes incredibly detailed photos of 5×5 mm areas.

“The principle behind the technology that HP initially invented to identify printed documents is that if you squirt ink onto paper, and if you look at it closely enough, the splatter of the ink is unique, like a fingerprint,” Angus Scott, Artclear’s cofounder and CEO, told ARTnews. “This also applies to oil paintings, so you have ready-made signatures built into each artwork.”

Several algorithms iron out any variations in focus, angle, and lighting to ensure the scanner records consistent images every time it returns to analyze the same points on each painting. “We want to eliminate the human element and risk from provenance analysis, “Scott added. Three contemporary galleries in London have signed up to Artclear’s services: the John Martin Gallery, the Lungley Gallery, and Des Bains. Hephaestus Analytical, an art authentication service that uses machine learningis also onboard but Artclear has yet to approach auction houses.

The director of Des Bains, Maria Valeria Biondo, told ARTnews that she believes “Artclear’s scanning technology will give collectors more confidence – as an emerging gallery it can be a great tool to show professionalism.”

All data captured by the scanners is decentralized and kept offline to protect against cybercrime. The digital certificates are then permanently connected to the physical artworks and securely stored on the blockchain. Artclear’s chief technology officer, Sanjeev Kumar, said the company plans to develop much smaller scanners on tripods so galleries, auction houses, artists, and collectors can issue and check Artclear’s digital fingerprints themselves.

Scott used the example of convicted art dealer Inigo Philbrick, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2022, to outline the benefits of Artclear’s provenance tracking. Philbrick created bogus custody receipts in his name for artworks he bought at auction on behalf of a consortium of investors, then went on to sell the works multiple times using the fake receipts.

“With Artclear, the auction house could have assigned ownership to the actual owners, and this would have prevented transfer without their consent,” he said. “Our tech makes it possible to permanently lock down key facts about an individual work of art and verifiably link them to their subject, the artwork itself, and their source, such as the artist. An artist can use Artclear to start a definitive file of information about their newly created works, avoiding the sort of controversy recently faced by Damien Hirst, as well as protecting the value of their oeuvre for their collectors.”

Art provenance specialist MaryKate Cleary believes using scanning technology to track provenance makes sense for primary works and those by living artists but the efficacy of such tools is debatable for historical works. “Provenance research is often a very labor-intensive process – researchers comb through libraries, archives, and scores of documents which are rarely digitized, so you need human analysis,” she told ARTnews.

Aubrey Catrone, another art provenance specialist, told ARTnews that overreliance on technology for provenance analysis is risky because “the current level of AI, for example, is not in a place to replace traditional research methods.” With regards to using the blockchain to secure data, Catrone added that “ideally, the market would unite all provenance and authentication information on one universal blockchain – but this is unlikely because there are so many art market actors and competing interests.”


Author: George Nelson
Published: April 04, 2024

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