by Girinandini SinghJan 15, 2021
In 2009, blockchain technology was brought into the world by a man about whom we know very little - Satoshi Nakomoto (the name known to the public, as his/their identity is as of yet unverified). A presumed Japanese citizen in his mid-40s, he is the famed inventor of Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency. A by-product of this invention was blockchain technology, which is now used extensively in a range of industrial applications. Rather recently, the art world began to take note of this technological revolution and started manipulating it to drive their solutions for some of the common problems which plague artists, collectors and other institutions in the art world. One of the primary and most fundamental issues this technology is addressing is that of provenance and authenticity. It is also a vital element in the protection of digital artworks, an increasingly essential requirement with the rise in new media art forms like AR/VR or even video/photo-based works. The intervention of blockchain is also opening up an entirely new market of crypto-art and digital collectibles, which create new opportunities for both the creators and consumers of art, namely artists and collectors, both individual and institutional. Blockchain also allows for buyers to own shares of artworks. This fractional ownership results in a more transparent market, eliminates intermediaries and make highly expensive artworks more accessible and therefore more liquid. To better understand why this technology is so important to an equitable, democratic and less corrupt art market, we speak to the CEOs of Verisart and Nifty Gateway, both of which employ blockchain in their solution-based entrepreneurial endeavours. If you are an artist, collector or someone in the periphery, this conversation is relevant - read on!
Robert Norton, the founder of Verisart, a blockchain verification platform for art, talks to us about his foray into the world of art, “I have been working at the forefront of consumer online experiences and internet technology for 25 years. I joined America Online (AOL) in 1995 in the UK and I have been working in this domain ever since. For the past ten years I have spent my time looking at the intersection of art and tech and how digital platforms can help art and artists, intermediaries and collectors build new experiences, reach new audiences. I was co-founder and CEO of Saachi Online, which is now one of the largest marketplaces for independent artists to sell their art direct to consumer and also Sedition Art, a well-known digital art platform used by leading artists to sell limited editions of their work. In doing these businesses I became more aware of the problems around authenticity, certification and provenance with regard to physical artworks and so as I started becoming aware of the emergence of distributed ledger technologies, and specifically what we call blockchain tech, in 2014 I saw an opportunity to apply this to the art market and build a digital certification platform. That’s what we do at Verisart. We leverage blockchain technology to provide an easy digital certification solution which artists, galleries and collectors use”.
Verisart is focused on perhaps the most commonplace struggle which artists of our time are facing - proving authenticity and provenance. The inclusion of blockchain technology creates a reliable and secure method to developing a secure database of certificates. Norton mentions, “We are really just an evolution from paper to digital certification, and it’s very advisable to have your papers in order to preserve value in work you have purchased and maximise your liquidity options at the time of sale. Artists who use our platform are using it because we help them with paperwork and now that piece of paper is able to be executed more quickly and they also ensure every update to that certificate is brought together. In the past you often had different information silos between the paper certificate, the provenance, the story of the object, the authority, the registry. At Verisart what we do is pull together the certificate, provenance and registry”. Norton continues to say, “We don’t verify the authenticity of the work itself because we would have to come into contact with that artwork. What we can do is verify who the issuer of the certificate is - the artist or appointed representative of that artist. If you are creating an artwork and you are not the artist, you are not able to create the certificate of authenticity, you are creating a certified record, which basically means you have a claim of this work in terms of you are recording it but it does not mean much in our system unless someone else agrees with that claim. We look at authenticity as an ongoing narrative, one that can either be established at the outset with credentials or requires additional information or multiple parties to support that narrative credence”.
Verisart has recently come together with DACS and Marcel For Art, in a collaborative endeavour called Vide Atelier. It is an online platform for artists to find relief during the ongoing pandemic, focused on providing resources and access at a time when both are scarce. The platform helps artists to certify their works and sell them online at zero commission.
While Verisart focuses exclusively on certification, there are other organisations like Nifty Gateway who support the artist in the entire process from certification to selling to secondary market royalties. Duncan Foster, while speaking with STIR, tells us about the motivation to create this platform, “Nifty Gateway was founded to simplify the process of purchasing and owning crypto art. Because crypto art is blockchain based, buying and holding is very difficult for people without a tech background. We have a great story about this. Our investor Adam Draper told us about his experience trying to buy a CryptoKitty (one of the earliest crypto art projects). He is a smart person and pretty experienced with blockchain. He spent four hours trying to buy a CryptoKitty, and then gave up because he found the experience so confusing. We figured that if someone like him couldn't even figure out how to buy crypto art, it was probably not going to get mainstream adoption. So, we decided to build Nifty Gateway - a crypto art platform that anyone could easily access. We also built it as a high-quality experience focused on marketing. We do a lot to market our artists and help them build their brands as much as possible”.
Leveraging blockchain in this process is perhaps most monumental for artists who work with digital media. Foster says, “Many of the digital creators we are working with are selling their artwork for the first time. Blockchain technology is a much better way to authenticate and own digital art. Digital art is just a computer file, which can be infinitely duplicated with ease. It’s basically impossible to prevent people from copying a digital file once they have it. So, it’s very hard to authenticate digital art, and it’s hard for digital art to hold value. Crypto art as a movement says ‘Go ahead, download the file, copy the file - unless you have the blockchain token, you are not the owner. The file has no value, the token is what has value’. It’s an entirely new approach and it works incredibly well. Because of the authenticity and ownership that blockchain tech guarantees, digital artwork can hold value much better than it could in the past. Many collectors have seen their works considerably appreciate in value. Our platform is helping creators make a living where they could not before. One of our artists just bought a house with the proceeds he has made selling art on Nifty Gateway. We were all quite touched by that”.
Artists like Jeff Koons and David Hockney have sold artworks in the secondary market for over 90 million dollars. Although these artists are still alive, they received no royalties for these sales. Blockchain technology promises to support artists and change this dynamic, empowering artist as they rise up the rungs of their art career. This is perhaps the most revolutionary implication of this technology, and why everyone in the art industry needs to start taking notice of it immediately.
Explaining further, Foster says, “The market is growing at an insane pace. We are actually having quite a lot of trouble keeping up, all of the stuff we built has been breaking because our platform grew much faster than we thought it would. I think that is going to continue. We are bringing on a bunch of exciting partners and incredible artists, and I think people are just going to get more into collecting crypto art. It is an incredibly exciting new industry, and if you are not paying attention to it right now, you should be”.