Christie’s Will Use a Blockchain Registry to Track Pollocks and O’Keeffes
10.15.2018

Auction house Christie’s is dipping its toes into blockchain registration.

In November, the major art house will auction off its “An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection,” which includes works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. (Fun fact: One of the de Koonings was previously owned by Steve Martin.) All of the transactions from this auction will get recorded on a blockchain thanks to a collaboration with the digital blockchain art registry Artory. The total estimated worth of the collection is over $300 million.

Christie’s described the blockchain registration auction as a “pilot” in a press release, noting that Artory will record “all public information” relating to Ebsworth Collection sales on its blockchain registry. This information includes pieces’ titles, descriptions, sales price, and date of sale. Christie’s will get digital certificates for each transaction, and buyers will get registration cards with information to help them access their secure, encrypted sales records on Artory whenever they please.

“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,” said Richard Entrup, chief information officer at Christie’s, in a statement. (Christie’s did not respond to requests for further comment.)

Over the summer, Christie’s didn’t seem to be so bullish on blockchain. At the decentralized asset registry Codex Protocol’s charity art auction during the Ethereal Summit in June, neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s, the other major U.S. auction house, would speak to me about blockchain. However, the volunteer auctioneer at the event, Caroline Ervin, worked as a jewelry specialist at Christie’s, and she said the auction house was “watching the technology.” Clearly they were watching closely.

The next month, Christie’s held a conference on blockchain. “Is the art world ready for consensus?” the summit’s website asked, laying out a program that featured talks from Leanne Kemp, CEO of blockchain diamond verification company Everledger and a member of IBM’s blockchain board of advisors, artist and creator of the I AM A Coin project Kevin Abosch, a Deloitte technology specialist, and Artory’s CEO Nanne Dekking.

John Watkinson, the artist who created digital collectibles CryptoPunks with partner Matt Hall, attended the conference. He sat in the audience while Hall spoke on a panel about digital art and listened to talks featuring Christie’s executives. The executives mostly wanted to have “legal discussions about GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation],” Watkinson said. “From their point of view, it kind of makes sense that Christie’s wouldn’t be into [blockchain]. They are the intermediary right now who takes an enormous cut, holds all that provenance data, all that information. That’s massively precious, so the idea of, ‘yeah, you know what, let’s upload it to the blockchain and close up shop, just shut it down’—of course they wouldn’t be into that.”

Tracking provenance (the record of ownership) of art on blockchain has been a recurring motif in the industry. Besides Artory and Codex Protocol, other companies like Maecenas promise “blockchain-based art auctions,” while the digital auction platform LiveAuctioneers has partnered with Codex to accept cryptocurrencies through Biddable, a tool for crypto bidding.

The purpose of securely tracking provenance would be, in part, to prevent people from creating forgeries and passing them off as the real thing. Counterfeit art pieces have plagued the industry nearly as far back as there was an industry. Michelangelo created forgeries in the 1400s, burying works he created in dirt to make them look like they’d been around for centuries. Sotheby’s had to refund $10 million to the buyer of a Frans Hals portrait two years ago, and even the president has a faulty Renoir.

But tying physical art pieces to digital records, even if those records are immutable, remains a complicated task. After all, just because an art piece has a corresponding blockchain record, doesn’t mean someone who owns the art can’t get a copy forged and then pass it off as the registered piece they own.

Some companies are trying to work around this. DUST Identity offers to coat objects with “nanodiamonds” to form “unclonable identity layers” that can be scanned and recorded on a blockchain. High-resolution photography seller VAST attempts to bridge this gap by sealing blockchain addresses into the backs of their corresponding physical prints. To ensure those seals can’t be broke and replaced, the company secures them with unique holograms that would be near impossible to accurately replicate. That, however, introduces a third party into the blockchain verification process, nearly rendering the decentralized ledger meaningless. For one, bringing a third-party authority into the picture nullifies the decentralized appeal of using blockchain. Plus, if a unique hologram is needed to connect the physical art piece to the ledger, then why not just use the hologram to certify the work’s uniqueness? Why bother with blockchain at all?

Christie’s upcoming blockchain auction doesn’t answer that question. However, it does signify a big step for the traditional art world embracing blockchain and may provide more incentive for people in the industry to work toward bridging the gap between physical works and blockchain records. Exhibitions of Christie’s Ebsworth Collection will take place in San Francisco at Minnesota Street Gallery from October 16 through 20 and in Los Angeles at Christie’s Beverly Hills Gallery from October 23 through 27. The auction will follow in New York in November at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. Perhaps buyers will stick holograms or nanodiamonds to their new O’Keeffes.