These Four Technologies May Finally Put an End to Art Forgery

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Like method actors and bearded brewmasters, the best art forgers are obsessed with authenticity. But thanks to a handful of new authentication technologies, even history’s most painstaking efforts wouldn’t stump today’s art sleuths.

Take Han van Meegeren, the most successful knockoff artist of the pre-war period. Adjusted for inflation, he made $30 million selling ersatz Dutch masters. Curators weren’t fooled just because the paintings looked perfect. (In fact, his Vermeers looked decidedly imperfect.) They were fooled because the art passed a crude forensic sniff test: every detail was “period correct.” He tracked down 17th-century canvases and stretchers. He duplicated Vermeer’s badger-hair brushes. And, in a stroke of OCD genius, he hand-ground exotic raw pigments following archaic formulas—no skimping allowed. Because faking Vermeer’s gorgeous signature paint would feel like cheating.

Today’s art authenticators have enough weapons in their arsenal—infrared spectroscopy, radiometric dating, gas chromatography—to spot a van Meegeren long before it hits the auction block. Many of these lab tests, though, are decades old, ample time for forgers to study the science and incremental improvements, perfect new counter-measures, and game the system.

Here’s the good news: The balance of power in the forgery detection game is about to shift. The art world has been closely monitoring scientific breakthroughs in fields as diverse as A.I., bitcoin, and protein analysis, and the technologies born from this research have either been appropriated by authenticators or will be soon. With these extra layers of security added to the vetting process, the current generation of copycat artists will find it increasingly difficult to hoodwink museum directors and collectors. Listen carefully, art patrons: That’s the sound of badger-hair brushes being turned into kindling.  

Tracking Digital Provenance with Blockchain

Digital art is increasingly gaining traction in the contemporary art world. Phillips’s last two “Paddles ON!” auctions, which showcased digital formats ranging from GIFs to video game screenshots, have been well received. Blue-chip galleries are on board too; Pace Art + Technology, a new 20,000-square-foot space in Silicon Valley, is dedicated solely to digital media. Digital art collectives—Japan’s teamLab being the most prominent—have also sprung up.

Most importantly, prices are rising. In 2003, Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, a wall projection birthed from a hacked Nintendo chip, sold for $3,000. Last year, an edition of that same piece went for $630,000. Still, the question remains: How can a gallery sell digital content as investment-grade art when it already exists online and can be copied like a Google Doc? The answer is blockchain, the same computer technology that serves as the public ledger for bitcoin transactions around the globe. In the same way that you can verify and track the movement of any bitcoin ever mined, you can now verify and track the movement of any artwork ever created—online and in real time—provided that all the authorship and ownership records have been uploaded to a secure distributed database.

Every event in the lifespan of an artwork becomes a block that contains a timestamp and information linking it to the previous block, enabling prospective buyers to confirm that the artwork has been licensed. This tech is ideal for digital media, where copies may be passed off as originals, and the specifics regarding limited editions and artist’s proofs are frequently vague.

Several companies are peddling this service: Verisart in Los Angeles, Ascribe in Berlin, and Everledger in London. Deloitte also sees the opportunity, having unveiled its ArtTracktive service at the ICT Spring summit in Luxembourg. But the startup that’s become a buzzword in the art world is Monegraph. That’s because the founder is an artist. “Digital art has a problem: Bits are infinitely reproducible, and people want exclusivity and verifiability,” explains media artist and Monegraph founder Kevin McCoy. “Blockchain solves that problem by providing a clear and distinct provenance.”

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