Blockchain as a Technology Applied to Authenticity Issues: A Possible New Resource for Building up a Catalogue Raisonne?

AuthorBianco, Paulo

Abstract

This article is an interdisciplinary study concerning the application of blockchain technology in the art field. In particular, it investigates whether blockchain can be used to replace the traditional format of catalogue raisonne, especially in relation to authenticity issues. To this end, the main features of the art market and its central players will be discussed. The importance of provenance research for the art business will be debated, together with an analysis of the way in which blockchain works, its main features and its limitations. This article then analyses the cases of Peter Doig and of John Drewe with John Myatt, with the aim of shedding some practical light on the blockchain discussion as these two cases involved authenticity issues. The conclusion is that blockchain is still an incipient technology with some limitations. As such, there is a potential to use it as a tool or resource to prepare a more traditional format of catalogues raisonnes (rather than replace them).

Introduction

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have revolutionised the financial market, as they have introduced, for the first time, digital currencies issued without a central bank behind them. The technology that has allowed the operation of Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies is blockchain, which is a digital ledger. As blockchain and Bitcoin emerged to a major audience at the same time, the former is commonly confused with the latter. However, they are not the same thing: blockchain is the technology that allows the recording of transactions involving a cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is one of the cryptocurrencies currently available. It is probably the most famous, since it was the first to appear.

As a ledger technology, the applications of blockchain potentially go much further than the world of cryptocurrencies. In fact, there is potential for blockchain to be used in any situation where management of ownership of an asset is required. Hence, the use of blockchain in the art market seems a natural step, as artworks circulate considerably amongst the market players. During the itinerary of an art object, provenance research is a key measure to avoid legal issues that can lead to discussions about authenticity, looted artefacts and stolen art. These controversies have been demonstrated to be fatal for many art businesses.

Thus, the catalogue raisonne can play an important role in provenance research, if it has been compiled following serious and well-thought research. These catalogues are an important resource for revealing the provenance of an art object, since they provide the researcher with information about the piece itself, its ownership chain and current location.

Bearing this in mind, this article seeks to answer the question of whether blockchain, being a form of immutable database, can replace the more traditional formats of catalogues raisonnes. This article also investigates whether blockchain can be used as an aid, at least, for the preparation of such listings.

To this end, the article is divided into six parts plus a conclusion. Part 1 identifies and describes the existing challenges in the art market. In Part 2, it is then demonstrated to the reader why provenance research is critical for avoiding legal challenges in the market, including authenticity issues. Part 3 maps the tools and resources already available for provenance research, including the role played by catalogues raisonnes for researchers in the field. Part 4 describes and explains what blockchain is and its application in the real world. Part 5 focuses on two famous cases involving authenticity issues--Fletcher V. Peter Doig and John Drewe's art fraud scheme. The conclusion leads the reader to an evaluation of the feasibility of blockchain in the art sector, offering some suggestions about its implementation in the future.

  1. The Art Market

    1.1. The Key Players

    Firstly, it is important to stress that the art market can be understood as a sort of system, where different stakeholders take part in the trade contributing to the circulation of artworks. In specialised literature, certainly, the art market is referred to as a "network of interdependent actors and institutions that produce, circulate and consume art." (1) While the art market is quite dynamic and new characters can appear from one day to the next, the main players--currently, at least--are museums, auction houses, dealers (including galleries), artists themselves, collectors, curators and advisors. (2) These last two groups will not be taken into consideration for the purpose of this study, since their roles are more focused on the promotion of artists and guiding people interested in purchasing artworks. (3)

    Although most museums do not have the same purchasing power as some wealthy collectors, they still constitute an important element of the equation that defines the art market. This is because some have endowments that are big enough to buy important artworks for their permanent collections, when they consider the transaction opportune (having regard to the value and the importance of the item for their collection). For instance, the Getty, in Los Angeles, is considered by the specialised press as the richest museum in the world, (4) bearing in mind its US $7.3 billion endowment through the J. Paul Getty Trust. (5) In 2019, the museum purchased a painting by Florentine Mannerist artist Bonzino, entitled Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth (around 1540-1545) for an undisclosed price from a Chilean private collector. (6) Old Masters' artworks are rare, which is why they are usually sold for large amounts, especially at auction houses. (7)

    For outsiders and a broader public, auction houses seem to dominate the art market, owing to the high-profile auction events and the effective strategy of their press offices. (8) Occasionally, record prices achieved at auctions reach the headlines of the international press with a little help from their publicists. In any event, auction houses alone were responsible for a market that was worth US $13.3 billion in 2019, whilst Christie's and Sotheby's--the 'big two'--had a share of about 55 per cent of this turnover. (9)

    The turnover of these two traditional auction houses has more to do with the kind of artworks (which are highly valuable for the market) they sell rather than the number of auctions they hold. Indeed, these firms are focused on the high-end segment of the market, which is why they do not need to sell a huge quantity of works to achieve these profitable results. (10) By reason of their prestige and size, Sotheby's and Christie's are trendsetters, stimulating demand for a given artist, movement or school.

    As will be seen in the next section, it is also important to stress that there is huge competition between these two traditional firms, since they want to maintain their influence on the market. They compete to auction the most valuable artworks and collections, sometimes offering sellers more competitive fees or even waiving them altogether. (11) Such efforts to increase their profits and prestige have led them, now and again, to the centre of controversies, as will be discussed below.

    With respect to the artists, the contemporary art market has given rise to the phenomenon of artists who take a more businesslike approach to their careers. While it is true that the figure of the 'struggling artist' is sometimes rather romanticised, there are few artists who enjoy a truly star-like prestige. (12) In any event, Andy Warhol, in many ways a trailblazer, influenced a number of contemporary artists to play the role of artist as a sort of celebrity. (13) There are several examples of this, including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Takashi Murakami, Gerhard Richter, KAWS, Richard Prince and Christopher Wool. All these artists have their work sold for millions of US dollars. Most of these artists have their artworks included on the most expensive lists in the contemporary art market. (14)

    With a better vision of their careers and the business behind the trade of their artworks, contemporary artists tend to conjugate the creative process with the market that backs up their oeuvre. This phenomenon has given rise to the figure referred to as the Entrepreneurial Artist'. (15) For instance, Damien Hirst, a leading figure from the Young British Artists (YBAs), collaborated with the British design label Alexander McQueen in 2013, creating 30 different prints for a limited edition of scarves. (16) The collaboration can be seen as a strategy to associate Hirst's name with the luxury goods market, particularly a brand for affluent young people.

    Finally, there are the art dealers and galleries that play a central role in the market for contemporary art, as they work representing and publicising many key contemporary artists (or, at least, the artists prized by the market). Galleries like White Cube, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, Serpentine, David Zwimer and Gagosian are behind most of the contemporary artists whose works fetch astronomical prices in the art market--whether at galleries, fairs or auctions.

    Following the tradition of the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, (17) one of the dealer's main concerns is controlling the price of the works of the artists he represents. This means that dealers need not only to invest money in promoting their artists (such as organising exhibitions, displaying their works at art fairs, and publishing books and other materials), but also choosing people who can buy it (like prestigious collectors), while avoiding speculators--who are likely to sell the art piece shortly after, seeking a quick profit. This practice of choosing the buyers is usually referred to as art 'placement'. (18)

    1.2. The So-Called Opacity of the Art Market

    Milosch (19) reported her surprise in 2009--at the time when she took leadership of the World War II provenance project at the...

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