Leading art, technology and finance specialists offered a range of answers at the inaugural Art +Tech Summit at Christie’s in London, as Malcolm Cossons reports
‘It’s incredible to see so many key innovators sat next to so many key decision-makers, all under one roof,’ said co-organiser Elliot Safra of Christie’s as he glanced across the packed Great Room at King Street.
The subtitle of Christie’s first one-day Art + Tech Summit — ‘Is the Art World Ready for Consensus?’ — recognised it is a question of when, and not if, blockchain will have an impact.
Watch the video of the summit
‘The only way you’ll have more concrete and strong propositions is by asking the right questions and having a knowledgeable audience,’ confirmed Bernadine Bröcker, co-host and CEO of Vastari, a platform connecting private collectors, museums and exhibition organisers. The event was sponsored by Bidpoc, a provenance service provider specifically for the art industry, which uses verification technologies to link physical artworks to an immutable digital identity on the blockchain.
With this in mind, it is worth reiterating exactly what this technology is. Blockchain is a decentralised, digital ledger allowing users to store information in a secure and permanent way. The data is stored in cryptographic blocks that form a time-stamped and immutable chain. This is verifiable and impossible to alter, and consequently reliable, trustworthy and traceable. The technology is widely known for currencies such as Bitcoin, but, from an art perspective, the same register can capture information such as provenance, sale history and records.
The context of this technology and its issues and applications was explored more fully in the early sessions of the summit. An emerging field such as this offers great potential, although Anton Ruddenklau, head of digital and innovation at KPMG, tempered this with caution on how robust the system is at this stage.
Jonathan Kewley, co-head of the tech group at law firm Clifford Chance, also accepted the potential of blockchain but highlighted the challenges with regard to data privacy, cyber security, artificial intelligence, infrastructure and competition. ‘I think blockchain will help transform the art market,’ he said. ‘Not a full facelift, but maybe some subtle Botox.’
‘The idea of a centralised database is interesting, but more interesting is the idea of a decentralised database’ — Jess Houlgrave
Only five per cent of the investments in the half-trillion-dollar blockchain industry are at present focused on the art market. Anne Bracegirdle, Christie’s photography specialist and an enthusiastic proponent of blockchain, underlined what an opportunity and challenge this nascent technology presents: ‘It’s thrilling that we are living and working during this technology’s infancy when we can shape its future and our standards. To integrate it into our businesses we must be able to see what this future might look like, and how we might collaborate.’
One application of blockchain is for digital art. It can create a self-contained ecosystem that is decentralised and democratic, with the provenance of works, payments and copyright built in. A revelation was the level of interest in the field — a single work recently sold for $140,000 — and the various models that can be applied.
John Zettler of R.A.R.E. Art Labs is closest to a traditional gallerist, while Yehudit Mam of dada.nyc facilitates ongoing visual conversations between artists. Matt Hall, on the other hand, co-devised the Cryptopunks Project, creating 10,000 unique characters with proof of ownership on a blockchain where they now trade. Queries remain about better accessibility, interface and display options, but the discussion underlined how the current levels of interest grow, particularly given the increasing ubiquity of screens.
Blockchain technology will also have a bearing on how the art world conducts its business. Jess Houlgrave, of Codex Protocol, which is building a registry of provenance, transactions, copyright and ownership, expressed the benefits of information residing with the owners of works rather than institutions. ‘There are two misconceptions,’ she argued. ‘Firstly that blockchain is a disruptor rather than an enabler. The idea of a centralised database is interesting, but what’s more interesting is the idea of a decentralised database.’
‘It’s important to look at all the various propositions and whether they really need blockchain at all’ — Frédéric de Senarclens
Removing opacity from the market and establishing clear and immutable data would revolutionise the market according to Nanne Dekking, chairman of the TEFAF Art Fair and founder of Artory, which is establishing a secure digital registry of verified information. ‘There are a lot of people who could afford to buy art and just don’t,’ he remarked. ‘They don’t trust the data and don’t understand the supply chain.’
Debates remain about who, if anyone, is the authority on the veracity of any stored information, and how it is permanently and physically connected to a specific artwork.
The final panel of the summit explored the idea of shared or fractional ownership of art, through tokens stored and traded on the blockchain. Frédéric de Senarclens, who runs research source Art Market Guru, said, ‘blockchain technology allows shared ownership, but it’s important to look at all the various propositions and whether they really need blockchain at all. I am a firm believer that there is an opportunity, so it’s a question of making sure that every aspect of the business side is covered.’
Companies Maecenas, Look Lateral and Tend Swiss, all represented on the panel, though with slightly different models, take a single work and sell shares in it, which can then subsequently be traded. It raises queries about where the original work resides and if a new and possibly inflationary asset class could emerge, while also creating opportunities, such as museums being able to realise assets without de-accessioning, and for new collectors to come to the market.
‘We have to explore these technologies. Blockchain will become pervasive, but it needs to become transparent first’— Richard Entrup
The conclusions drawn from such an involved series of discussions are fascinating and complex. The technology of blockchain is powerful and will certainly have implications for the art world. Christie’s, in hosting this summit, has recognised this.
Speaking in the final panel, which was chaired by Georgina Adam of the Financial Times and The Art Newspaper, Richard Entrup, Global Chief Information Officer at Christie’s, explained how the company is ‘trying to disrupt itself, if you will. We have to explore these technologies. Blockchain will become pervasive, but it needs to become transparent first.’
A number of speakers emphasised how blockchain will become so widely used that it will cease to even be a point of discussion or contention. There are issues to be resolved concerning privacy, security, infrastructure and competition, among others. By the same token the opportunities to create a decentralised, secure and trustworthy system are vast.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine, who also joined this closing discussion, cited the artist Martha Rosler in the context of how this field may develop: ‘The future always flies under the radar’.