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The art of identifying artworks

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

A new consortium aims to foster cooperation and harness technology to improve identification of artworks and artefacts. by Marianne Magnin RICS Property Journal, July/August 2020

The art world is as rich in data as it is inefficient in organising and mining it. Some would argue that this is deliberate, as information asymmetry enables arbitrages to flourish. Others would explain these inefficiencies as inevitable due to the sector being so atomised and lagging behind in terms of information technology. This is a tremendous missed opportunity. Looking at other sectors, the size of the EU data economy was estimated to be worth more than €301bn in 2018, representing over 2.4 per cent of the EU GDP and is expected to grow to almost 6 per cent of the EU GDP by 2025. A rough extrapolation based on the size of the art trade in 2019 factored by 2018 percentage – around €59bn, excluding services – would already generate an extra €1.4bn for the art world.

This is without even speculating on the number of new entrants – as potential collectors and investors – willing to enter the art world but deterred by the opacity of price, fees, etc., and due diligence challenges of authenticity, attribution, ownership, provenance and money laundering affecting what is evidently an inefficient marketplace.

Let’s look at the EU: the European Strategy for Data, one of the first pillars of the EU digital transformation, clearly states that ‘data is an essential resource for economic growth, competitiveness, innovation, job creation and societal progress in general’. The COVID-19 cataclysm destabilising the art world at the time of writing re-enforces the case for a new approach to art data. The information revolving around each artwork is the backbone of the art market; it starts with authorship and authenticity, proof of title, condition reports, exhibition history, whereas market price and transaction logs are only a fraction of what matters when it comes to understanding the lifecycle of each artefact. Artists, collectors and institutions know that trust is the cornerstone.

The information revolving around each artwork is the backbone of the art market

While regulations such as GDPR and AMLD5 already start to provide a governance framework for the information that relates to individuals and financial transactions, there is no clear pan-industry approach to organise the data related to objects. The multiplicity of solutions to identify artworks and describe associated provenance events leads to inefficiencies and unsustainable practices across the full spectrum of the art world. Duplication of effort, incompatibility across systems, loss and distortion of information, or asymmetric information are some of the key pitfalls. A unified procedure on the information attached to artefacts would open up opportunities for user-oriented innovations and business activities. Over the years, companies and organisations have developed independent standards but they neither communicate nor integrate with one another, thus leaving issues such as duplicate records, incomplete data or platform interoperability unresolved. At the same time, each company or organisation expects the rest of the world to adopt their standards.

The Art Identification Standard (AIS) consortium was born out of the vision to build an industry-wide standard for artwork identification. This framework is expected to fundamentally enhance the way artworks are managed, shared and enjoyed. With more than 20 members at the time of launch in January 2020 the consortium aims to bring together across the art scene, artists, artist estates, art historians, curators, advisors, dealers, commercial galleries, art-tech companies, non-profit organisations, museums, insurers, lawyers, valuation experts and collectors.

For the AIS consortium, success in widespread standard adoption relies on its members’ diversity from inception, ensuring that all stakeholders, including those that are not used to working together, such as commercial versus not-for-profit sectors, or not historically well-represented such as artists from minority communities, are invited to the table.

The AIS manifesto sets out clear goals and positions: Identification and provenance standards that support a sustainable and fairer art ecosystem, ultimately benefiting its stakeholders. Unique object identification (artmetrics) is the cornerstone to provenance. Artmetics and provenance don’t generate money, they are instead tools to enhance business models and operating systems. A common language across the art sector to uniquely identify an artwork and capture its lifecycle improves the fluidity of exchanges (trust, efficiency, velocity). Artists need to be empowered by having control of how their data is used.

AIS rules of engagement derive from the manifesto, promoting transparency of the decision process, diversity of views, respect of all voices, consensus building and democratic mechanisms.

Another critical factor for success is that AIS is a not-for-profit initiative. All members contribute and collaborate in a neutral environment, where no single player owns or manages the data, systems or processes. Critically, AIS acknowledges potential conflicting interests without undermining the value of competition: it is an incentive for commercial creativity as much as public sector innovation to co-exist around a central and shared anchor. AIS’s third pillar is cutting-edge technology. Blockchain technology solutions make it possible for the industry to create tools to support the development, management and identification of art, both physical and digital. Leveraging blockchain also allows for easier collaboration and decision making, with a view to introducing a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation at some stage, making it an ‘organisation whose decisions are made electronically by a written computer code or through the vote of its members’.

How to describe the AIS standard? It is a unique identifier consisting of a series of signs (hash) attached to a given artwork, stored in an unalterable distributed ledger. That ID is not a repository of information but a beacon that has the potential to point to where metadata can be found, hosted elsewhere, whether it is accessible openly or not, free of cost or not. It is making it possible for the sector to not only organise its data better, but to promote new solutions and services by harvesting the benefits of pan-industry protocols to coalesce into a true data economy.

Critically, AIS is not just about exploiting data: it defends and promotes strong values that are going to be even more needed at a time when the traditional models are threatened to their core by COVID-19. AIS establishes a framework for sound and fair collaboration across players, while acting together reflects the social intelligence needed to overcome crises. It puts people first, fostering an environment that equips the weakest with mechanisms to protect their rights and enhance their value proposition, starting with artists with small and medium galleries.

Marianne Magnin is chair and co-founder of AIS, and is also UK managing director at Arteïa

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