“Authenticity is the soul of the object,” declared Chinese art expert Nicolas Chow, who is quoted in the introduction to Sotheby’s presents The Value of Art | Episode 1: Authenticity. Chow also notes the threat to authenticity, observing: “Anything that is worth something is worth being faked.”

Fakes in Museums and in the Marketplace

Sotheby’s details a number of techniques art experts use to establish authenticity. A whole range of knowledge is needed to establish whether a painting is what it purports to be or if it is a good example of art to be exhibited in The Museum of Art Fakes located in Vienna.

Of course, there the works are identified as fake, but likely there are at least some fake works of art on display in museums that believe them to be the real thing.

A couple of years ago the French museum dedicated to the works of Étienne Terrus made the unhappy discovery that 82 of the 134 paintings it had attributed to Terrus were fakes.

Even museums can be duped into buying fakes because the giveaways are not always obvious.

The advance of online marketplaces also contributes to the increasing number of fakes on the art market today.

As Tim Carpenter, from the FBI’s Art Crime Team told Slate: "Back before online marketplaces and social media took over, you had galleries and middlemen doing due diligence. Now, there's no middleman.”

The result is unchecked sales of works of dubious provenance and origins.

Proof of Authenticity in Blockchain

But even while one form of technology exacerbates the problem of works of art that may not be what they claim to be on the market, another may solve it.

Blockchain has already been applied to address the problem of counterfeit drugs, so why not apply it to counterfeit art?

The idea has gained traction over the past couple of years. A 2018 Art Basel conversation entitled: “Blockchain and the Art World”, featured the views of four experts.

Among them was Verisart Founder and CEO Robert Norton. He said the two central questions that come up in a sale of art are: “‘Is the artwork real, and do I have the authority to sell it to you?’”

The information that gets locked into the blockchain assigned to a work of art can answer both.

The smARt solution for today’s art

It was also in the year 2018 that Stephen Howes, an art dealer with over 25 years of experience in the art world, teamed up with Ian McLeod, a technology expert to apply the blockchain solution to art.

The business is called Thomas Crown Art, a name that references the 1999 film, The Thomas Crown Affair, about a detective’s pursuit of a billionaire who steals valuable art works for the thrill of it.

Both Howes and McLeod participated in a phone interview in which they explained how they use a combination of blockchain and QR codes to make their art works “smART.”

As soon as an artist completes his work, whether it’s a single piece or a sent number of prints, it is set up with a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain.

A QR code is placed on the bottom left hand corner of the art work, so it can be scanned for both information on the work and proof of provenance.

Benefits for Artists

Howes and McCleod say that artists seek them out, though they also pick some up on their visits to street festivals in the UK. Most of the artists currently with them are based in the UK, as is Thomas Crown Art, though they are looking to expand to take on artists from abroad.

There is a natural appeal for artists to use the smARt system because it gives them an unalterable record of exactly how many pieces of art they have produced and all its relevant detailed stored on the blockchain.

Each Thomas Crown Art smART Contract enabled artwork gets recorded with the following details:

  • Artwork Title

  • Artist Name

  • Print Number

  • Production Date

  • Total Number of Pieces Produced

  • Dimensions of the Artwork

  • Work Type (ST/PP/AP/OP) standard/printer proof/artist proof/original piece

  • Unique Creator ID (Thomas Crown Art Smart Contract Generator address)

  • Smart Contract Version Number

These records can be checked and verified by anyone using the Thomas Crown Art DApp Provenance checker function, or independently using a blockchain explorer such as etherscan.io

Scanning is demonstrated in this video:

To Stop a Thief

Even if the work of art is stolen, the thief would not have the private key necessary to effect a change in the blockchain. The legitimate owner who does have it would be able to destroy the Provenance Certificate for the artwork, and so the piece would not be able to be sold as an art work with proof of provenance.

Howes and McCleod went on to explain how this safeguards against passing off copies as originals. If someone would try to copy the art piece and even the smart contract, they still wouldn't have the private key for the contract, which is necessary to register any change on the smart contract.

Each contract has its own private key. Whenever there is a change in ownership, the new owner gets assigned a new key.

The only serious limitation for this approach to secure art works is that it only works properly with newly created pieces. Howes admitted that to apply it to something that has already been around would entail relying a third-party for authenticity and provenance, which would make it not 100% reliable.

However, today’s artists can get their work on the blockchain to prevent counterfeits or stolen copies from coming to market.

It is contemporary works, particularly those that incorporate technological innovations, that Thomas Crown Art will be exhibiting when it opens the UK's first AR art and street art gallery in spring 2020.