NFT Blockchain Art Provenance

March 7, 2021

In the world of art investing, the concept of provenance is everything. The term originated from the French word, provenir, which means "to come from/forth". Provenance is how proof of ownership is established once it leaves the artists' studio. Traditionally that involves signing the artwork and creating a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) to accompany the piece. If you're purchasing art primarily for decor or interior design reasons then provenance is most likely irrelevant to your needs. However if you're in the market for artwork that can potentially fetch a significant sum of money then verifying that the art isn't counterfeit becomes extremely important. Limited edition photography prints also rely on provenance to establish the validity of the edition. Without provenance then the value of art is severely limited.

Even by taking all the necessary steps to establish provenance, it's not fool-proof and counterfeiting can be still quite common. Art experts struggle at times to discern an original from a copy. Also, in the rarified world of art museums, mainstream museums sometimes have stolen art in their collection though it's not necessarily intentional as the details of ownership can get muddy after enough years pass. Based on my research however and from discussions with friends who invest in cryptocurrency, I believe that provenance is on the verge of taking a major step forward.

NFT Blockchain Art Provenance
Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail

Blockchain Ledger System

"A blockchain, originally block chain, is a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data (generally represented as a Merkle tree). By design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of its data. This is because once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without alteration of all subsequent blocks.

For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for inter-node communication and validating new blocks. Although blockchain records are not unalterable, blockchains may be considered secure by design and exemplify a distributed computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance. The blockchain has been described as "an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way". Source: Wikipedia

In recent years, the field of provenance has evolved to include blockchain technology. While still an emerging technology, using NFT's (non-fungible tokens) to establish art provenance is very intriguing. Since all transactions occur through the use of a public ledger there is no ambiguity about who owns a particular piece. A caveat is that this relates to digital art and not a physical art piece, but I believe that if the artist digitizes the traditional Certificate of Authenticity then transfers to the art buyer via a NFT which is hosted on Ethereum blockchain then it's not much different from using a hologram to establish provenance. If the buyer decides to eventually sell later or transfer provenance then that is also recorded on the ledger. It would be almost impossible to sell counterfeit art for large sums under that system since tampering with the transaction record would require access to the majority of decentralized computers in the massive blockchain.

Another way to establish provenance in-lieu of a physical COA is to embed the print edition information with the IPTC meta data of the photo then upload the photo as a NFT file to any of the crypto art marketplaces. The photo meta data would then represent the same thing as a traditional COA. Since the file cannot be altered then the provenance is permanent as long as the blockchain technology exists.

Blockchain technology is a bit too abstract and technical for general adoption at the moment but it's clear that the concept is sound and this offers a very promising way for artists to establish their reputation. I'm no expert on the subject but I've been hearing about this for nearly a decade now and it's rapidly growing in adoption rate. Blockchain powers a number of services that you and I use in our day-to-day lives whether you're aware of it or not. Soon enough, I believe this might be the default way to establish provenance in the art industry as well.

If you're interested in discussing provenance, crypto art or anything along those lines please feel free to reach out to me and we can probably figure something out. You can also connect with me on Rarible and Open Sea.

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