The Promise of Blockchain: Transparency in the Art Market

Katie and Steve speak with Nanne Dekking, the founder and CEO of Artory and Chairman of the European Fine Art Fair, about Artory’s efforts to use blockchain to create a transparent registry of art sales, the general challenges to transparency in the fine art market, the problem of detecting fakes and forgeries and trustworthy counterparties, and blockchain’s limitations.


Episode Transcription

Steve Schindler: Hi, I’m Steve Schindler.

Katie Wilson-Milne: I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.

Steve Schindler: Welcome to the Art Law Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And vice versa. The Art Law Podcast is sponsored by the law firm of Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP, a premier litigation and art law boutique in New York City.

Steve Schindler: We are here today with Nanne Dekking. Nanne is the co-founder and CEO of Artory, a company located in New York and Berlin. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of TEFAF which is one of the world’s preeminent organizations for fine art antiques and design. Prior to founding Artory, Nanne was the vice chairman and worldwide head of private sales for Sotheby’s. Before joining Sotheby’s, Nanne was Vice President of Wildenstein & Company. He started his career as assistant curator of the historical collections of Her Majesty, the Queen of the Netherlands and I had to put that in.

Katie Wilson-Milne: That sounds so glamorous.

Nanne Dekking: I would make that assistant, assistant, assistant curator.

Katie Wilson-Milne: It sounded good the way Steve said it.

Nanne Dekking: But coming from a background where my father always said you know if you study art history you will never get a job, I was actually quite pleased that I got that job.

Katie Wilson-Milne: You have done very well. And so Nanne thank you for being with us today. We are going to ask you some big picture questions about the art world and about technology. But first can you tell our listeners about your career and how you ended up doing what you are doing now and what that is?

Nanne Dekking: Sure. So indeed it started off as becoming an art historian, the study where you know that you will never find a job with and being incredibly grateful that I did find a first job. It was for the Dutch Royal Family and I made a catalogue of their portrait collection. And so it started off a bit scholarly and my jobs became less and less scholarly and more managerial and sort of the top of that was to be the deputy business director of the Dutch National Ballet which was a job I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like working in a concrete circus tent with very talented people and clear deadlines. The moment the curtain goes up you better be ready.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah.

Nanne Dekking: Then me and my husband got an opportunity to move to New York in ’96 because of Frank’s job, my husband’s job, and I followed. And I started my own little company, Nanne Dekking Fine Arts, where we advised potential collectors or collectors on acquisition. And we were specialized in issues of provenance which at that time, this is mid of -97 right now, just became really a big thing for the first time. The Art Loss Register barely existed or didn’t even exist yet and it was a niche, we found out. And we did a lot of research on provenance issues for art works and advised people not to buy when we weren’t sure and to buy when we were absolutely convinced that everything was right.

Steve Schindler: At that period of time, Nanne, were you working with Old Masters and Impressionists? Just where did you draw the line? I’m curious.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. You know I always felt that French Impressionism was so middle of the road that I should not be interested in it and I love French Impressionism. I vividly remember why I study art history is because of the image of Gare Saint-Lazare in my history book when I was maybe 12. I learnt more about 18th century portraits, as if that’s not boring, but when I started working I really followed my passion. I happened to know a lot about French Impressionism. It may be the only thing that I know a little bit about.

Katie Wilson-Milne: You mentioned the Art Loss Register not being around in the early part of the 90s. Can you explain for our listeners what that is and why it sort of raised the profile of provenance issues?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. So the Art Loss Register is a way to do due diligence. They have a huge database or many databases about lost and stolen art work or art that was stolen by the Nazis and where families have a claim on to recuperate these art works. It’s not an impeccable system. It’s not flawless but it’s the best system we have. And everybody uses it to make sure when you are buying art work that at least it’s checked by the Art Loss Register. So it’s a way to do due diligence and it’s the most thorough system we have so far.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So you from the beginning of your career as a dealer were interested in dealing with these issues of provenance and title and any kind of cloud on the artwork that —

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. That happened by coincidence. You know I was a very small art dealer and we had to find a niche and the niche turned out to be to do more research. And we had hoped more academic research and then we found out that people basically wanted provenance research. It’s not that I woke up one day and I thought, “Gee, I’m going to change the world and do more provenance research.” It just happened to work out that way.

Steve Schindler: And how did you do provenance research when you started? Where did you look and how did you trace provenance?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. A good question because your means are quite limited. The Frick Collection collection happens to have a very big archive on art dealership archives. So that was usually the first thing we did was to go to the Frick. Then you just reach out to people who you know in your network who can do research in other countries, Holland, the RKD, the Art Historical Royal Archive actually has an amazing repository of dealer archives. So little by little you find your way, but it’s a lot of digging. It’s a lot of research through different archives. These days it’s of course much better because much of it is digitalized or at least if you know how to work different data systems you can find your way. But it’s complicated to do research on provenance especially because dealers were not always very forthcoming in sharing information with their clients if it came to provenance.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Were there certain types or periods of art where this was a bigger issue at the time? I mean as Steve alluded to were you dealing in certain periods of art, certain types of work for which provenance is more iffy or more risky or more unknown or affects the value of the work more?

Nanne Dekking: You know it affects all art. Let’s put it this way. It effects all art made before the Second World War. That’s of course the big red flag. Whether it’s an impressionist art work or a 15th century Italian Old Master, if there is vague provenance in, let’s say from the 1930s to 1946, you better do a lot of research. And needless to say that interestingly enough, if there is a problem, it’s usually around the time that you are not completely clear what happened to an art work that was made prior to the Second World War.

Katie Wilson-Milne: We had a podcast about Nazi-looted art and sort of the trajectory of personal property, specifically art, around World War II. And as our listeners will remember from that episode, a lot of property is mysteriously invisible for a long period of time and even up through the end of the Cold War, there is really not a lot of data on where that stuff is so —

Nanne Dekking: And a lot was stolen let’s put it that way. And also the perception, even in Holland where I’m from, is that after the Second World War people just wanted to forget what happened. It was a nasty period, let’s forget about it. And a lot of Jewish family that, well, not a lot of people returned let’s put it that way. But even the people who returned had big problems in actually getting their houses back let alone getting their art works back. I mean this is an unbelievable chapter, of course, in the history of mankind.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And even going back further are there significant provenance authenticity concerns about much older art work too that you encounter? I mean that could be I guess whether something is “by the hand of” or “the school of” or could it be — is it just entirely a fake? I mean those issues still come up, too. Were you are seeing some of that?

Nanne Dekking: Well the interesting thing about art is that previous ownerships actually can add to the value of an art work. And unlike a house, unless Marilyn Monroe lived there maybe, but usually a house is a house and there is a lot of information about who lived there in the past but you don’t necessarily care. With an art work, if it’s owned by someone important it’s going to add to the value. And especially if you go to the Old Masters, if you go to Leonardo Da Vinci for example it makes a huge difference if a certain king, François 1er, how to call him in English? Frank I, or the king of France in the days of Leonardo Da Vinci if that art work was in his collection, Francis I.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Francis something.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. So if a Leonardo, or a work attributed to Leonardo, was in the collection of the French king it does mean something even to the attribution and that’s also of course where a lot of tricky whereabouts of artworks find place, that a noble collection helps. All of a sudden the artwork was in a noble collection.

Katie Wilson-Milne: How can you actually verify?

Nanne Dekking: How can you verify that? Yeah.

Steve Schindler: Right. And then sort of playing into that is the whole notion of lack of transparency and secretiveness in the art world that lots of people don’t want the world to know whether they’ve owned a work of art or the nature of transactions generally.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. It’s not a win-win situation there because you have the art dealers, who are quite secretive. You have the scholars, who also hold information close to their chest, and then you have the owners, who do not necessarily want to be known as the owners of the art work. So it’s very, very hard to disentangle that. Let’s start with the scholars. Let’s face it scholars don’t necessarily want to share their research with the rest of the world. If it comes to art dealers, the fact that they have information that’s not shared with the potential clients of an art work gives them a certain power and makes the margins bigger, let’s face it. And then you have the owners who not necessarily want to be advertised as on my wall at 241 East, let’s take Pacific Street in Brooklyn.

Steve Schindler: Right.

Nanne Dekking: There is an art work hanging that’s worth $600,000.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Or expose when they are selling it, because it may look like you know some financial vulnerability.

Nanne Dekking: Right.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Alright so, Nanne, this is the crazy world in which you enter the New York art market and you work in this world for two decades.

Nanne Dekking: Scary. Yeah. Long time. Since ’96.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Going on more. And how does that connect, because we know it does connect to what you are doing now?

Nanne Dekking: It does connect to what I’m doing now also because I didn’t want to become an art dealer. I much more wanted to become actually a curator, but life goes as it goes. We moved to New York and I had to start something to make a living and I became a dealer and a researcher on provenance issues. And then I was lucky enough to find a job at Wildenstein Gallery, and I was lucky enough to be able to sell out of that collection. And what I noticed is, I realized that I had to be trusted all the time. I always had to convince people you have to buy this and you have to buy it because you can trust Nanne. You cannot necessarily trust all the scholars who write about this work but trust me. And I found that a terrible situation to be in. Because when you sell a car, when you sell a house, there is so much real information that you can share with clients rather than a few art historians who actually contradict each other or on and on I can go.

Steve Schindler: But car salesmen are not exactly the exemplars of trustworthiness.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. But you can go to —

Nanne Dekking: What’s that?

Steve Schindler: Car salesmen are not exactly the epitome of good practices.

Nanne Dekking: I know! And for no reason these days, right, if you look at Carfax.

Steve Schindler: Right. There is a lot more information out there.

Katie Wilson-Milne: You can always go to a mechanic and check.

Nanne Dekking: I don’t trust a car salesman either, I have to say, but I realize that it’s actually — I mean you can trust them, because there is all the repairs that have been done are known, etcetera, to your car. Not necessarily when you buy an Old Master painting.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But you can’t get a mechanic to look at a painting and tell you 100% what’s going on.

Nanne Dekking: Honestly spoken you can. If it comes to condition you can. It’s very interesting that it’s not happening and that it is not obligatory and that there is no such thing as a standard condition report where every restorer looks at exactly the same things. But there are mechanics who could actually do a lot of research on art works but it doesn’t always happen.

Steve Schindler: So tell us a little bit about what you are doing now.

Nanne Dekking: Right. So what I said to be trusted is not the nicest position to be in all the time. And I was very lucky that when I still owned my own little company I met the founder of SAP and his name is Hasso Plattner. SAP is, for those who don’t know, a very big software company, and actually databases is their product. But they always say, “we bring transparency in a complicated digital environment.” And Mr. Plattner became a very big collector. And I was really grateful that he trusted me and he built up this very big collection and now it’s public so I can talk about it. For many years I never spoke about it. But he came out as a collector and he owns the largest collection of Impressionists — French Impressionists landscapes. And the collection got much better with Neo Impressionists, with Expressionists, beautiful Munch’s, etcetera.

Steve Schindler: He has his own museum now.

Nanne Dekking: He has his own museum. Yeah. If you are ever in Berlin go to Potsdam to the Museum Barberini, where you can see many of his artworks. So Hasso doesn’t necessarily like the art world. He doesn’t necessarily have time for the art world. He is not necessarily in for smoothing and having dinners together and stuff like that. And he always said, “Nanne, there is something clearly wrong with the world you work in,” because again, he is the guy who actually told me I have to trust you to buy $20 million painting or $10 million painting or even if it’s $5,000 art work, it’s a lot of money involved. And as maybe most people know is you have such a thing as a catalogue raisonné for very important artist where the whole oeuvre of an artist is compiled by scholars. And there is such a thing as the catalogue raisonné of Monet and Renoir and the Impressionists painters. Many of these catalogue raisonnés are actually published by the Wildenstein Institute in Paris. So I would sometimes sell him a very important art work for millions of dollars but I even had to tell him it’s not yet in the catalogue raisonné. So there was no evidence that academics agreed on the attribution of the art work. And then I could tell him but don’t worry because it may take 3 months, it may take 6 months but I will get you an attestation, which is a little piece of paper which says nothing legally spoken. It says that as of today we as the Catalogue Raisonné Committee agree that the work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné. And that was it and he literally said to me, “Nanne, so somewhere in Paris there is white smoke coming out of the chimney and I don’t even know who these people are.”

Steve Schindler: Yeah.

Nanne Dekking: So he in a very convincing way even made the world I worked in look more suspicious than it sometimes can be. And he was the one who challenged me to change that world. And at that time I worked at Sotheby’s, big job, lot of traveling, etcetera, and also at the age that I knew I can do one more gig. And I thought this is the gig. Let me try to build up something. And as he is a database man, I knew we have to build up a database of trusted information which people can actually find. It should be publicly accessible. And that’s easier said than done. Initially we thought that we had to put all the catalogue raisonnés online or as many as possible. That doesn’t work.

Steve Schindler: How come?

Nanne Dekking: I mean, yeah, the publication of a catalogue raisonné is such a slow process, and again people don’t like to share information. Academics don’t like to share information until they are really, absolutely convinced about what they are doing. It’s just a very slow process. I mean, just as a catalogue raisonné is finally published, these people don’t have any intention to come up with yet another volume. And it’s like wow we created this and it’s great. And it is actually a process that should be online. There are some catalogue raisonnés online, the Cezanne catalogue raisonné is a very good example. But even there, although I admire what they are doing, they treat the online platform as if it were an analog platform. Because they only publish something online when they are absolutely convinced after years and years. Whereas I could imagine a more interactive way of publishing catalog raisonnés, where you would publish things even if you are not completely clear about it and make sure that people can actually be part of the creation. Not Wikipedia but —

Steve Schindler: I was about to say it sounds like Wikipedia.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. I don’t like Wikipedia if it comes to the art world. I like it in many other worlds.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But somewhere in between.

Nanne Dekking: Somewhere in between — a curated Wikipedia.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. Well we are seeing — it’s interesting I was just at an event at Daedalus where they were talking about the advent of online catalogue raisonnés and that more and more people are interested in them because they can live longer than a book. They can obviously be updated quicker than a book. You know, I’m curious if you think that that’s catching on in a broader sense or?

Nanne Dekking: It’s catching on very slowly. I have learned by starting a company like Artory how slow the art world is to adapt, which is fine. I was more rushed than they were apparently. And I think the product that we created was a little bit ahead of the curve, which is also fine. But I do believe that every art work deserves all the relevant information of that art work to live somewhere in a public, searchable environment together with that art work. And for me this attestation that I just mentioned where Mr. Plattner said there is smoke coming out of a chimney somewhere in Paris, that attestation should live somewhere in the digital way, in a digital environment together with that art work. The same as a sales record. You know, if you sell an art work especially publicly, everybody knows that. The seller should actually make sure that that information is accessible not only for a few years or a few months but in perpetuity. That there is no need to take these records down at a certain moment and that’s what we have created.

I didn’t even know what blockchain technology was. I mean these days everybody talks about blockchain technology. Interestingly enough, everybody also talks about how does it actually work? I’m always surprised by that because people use their cell phone not knowing how it works. But anyway, there is such a thing as blockchain technology, and maybe we can talk about it later. But for me the most fascinating thing about when I learnt about blockchain technology is that blockchain technology makes records unalterable and they time stamp. It’s all you need in the art world. I think it’s the best use case for a blockchain, that you can actually curate a record that is unalterable and time stamped. So moving forward you can always see when people changed their mind or when there’s a new sales record.

And then of course we had the problem. I spoke already about academics not liking to share information. I already said the art world, or the art market, doesn’t like to share information. Then you have the owners who don’t want to be known as the owners. So what I did know is you always have to make sure that you separate the owners from the system you are building. And the system we built is, for Artory it’s impossible to know who the owner is but the owner is but the owner does get a mnemonic code in a way, to go into our system and actually claim ownership to outside people if they go into our system. But we don’t know who these people are. Sounds a little bit like how is that possible? But I can explain that.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what information are you storing?

Nanne Dekking: We are storing in two ways. First of all, we all know through Art Net, for example, which is an art price database and what they do, they scoop up, they scrape information that’s out there publicly. We are going to do the same.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And publicly meaning it’s sold at auction?

Nanne Dekking: It’s sold at auction.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Not in private sales, so it’s omitting a big part of the market.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. So Artory acquired a big database of something like 22 million records that we are making accessible. We also make sure that nothing happened behind paywalls, etcetera. And we make those records really presentable and searchable. But we also collaborate with market players we believe are — well let’s put it this way, the market players that have good due diligence processes in place and visible and clear due diligence processes.

Steve Schindler: There was a lot of publicity recently about the Christie’s sale of the Barney Ebsworth Collection and its partnership with Artory with the use of some sort of blockchain technology in that sale. Maybe you could just describe how that happened. It might make it easier to understand what you are doing.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. I mean the Ebsworth collection is indeed, it’s a good example. We are very happy with that because it was an endorsement of a big auction house, the biggest auction house, where to my opinion they do have clear due diligence processes in place. At least it’s all searchable. You know exactly what their statements about an art work are based on. And what happened was the Ebsworth collection came to the market, and the heirs of Mr. Ebsworth wanted to create a record of those art works that in perpetuity would in a way connect these art works with Mr. Ebsworth. And that’s clearly very possible with blockchain technology. So what we did is every record that was created by Christie’s, the moment that it was published on the internet and the moment the prices were achieved after the sale through an API, through a communication system that Artory has created with the cataloguing department at Christie’s, immediately after the sale all the information flowed into our public database, cryptographically signed off by Christie’s. By the way we don’t create any record, right. It’s their record that flows into our system. And before it goes, it’s visible on our public database we actually store it. We hash it and we store it in that blockchain that we spoke about.

Steve Schindler: What information is actually being sort of sent by Christie’s to this blockchain?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. So all the tombstone information, all the literature, all the provenance and all the exhibition records.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But this is what’s going into your public database, which I assume is, I can log on to your website and there is like a search box and I can search and all the stuff is going to come up in plain English not hashed – just, I can see the information.

Nanne Dekking: It’s plain English, yeah.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But that information coming from Christie’s was information that was already in their public print catalogues and on their websites?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So this is not stuff that people couldn’t already search for. It’s just organizing it in one place.

Nanne Dekking: True. So the new part, the new element is the blockchain technology. So it’s indeed searchable on our public database. But what we do is every record on Artory is secured by a backup in blockchain. I think the only way to really understand this is to say it’s a backup in the blockchain. Meaning if anyone would manipulate the record on our database, on our public database, we can immediately see that something happened and that makes even the record on our public database, it doesn’t make it unalterable, but the moment it’s altered by anyone you can see that something officially happened.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And what about information — you said that you give information that’s accessible to an owner of a work that’s not publicly accessible on your database. So it seems like there are two parts to Artory. One is it’s a resource that I could use. I could go on, search any painting or an artist and find out transaction information and provenance information. But there is also a private side that’s inaccessible to the public?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. There is what we call the anonymous private collector area. So what happens is the moment the art work is sold and the information is stored on Artory, the owner gets after he has paid or she has paid, a card, which is the Artory card. It’s actually not like an Artory card. It’s a Christie’s card. It’s their client relationship. We don’t know who these people are. So we make a unique identifier between the art work and the records in our database. And that’s given by Christie’s to their clients for the art works that they have bought. And with that card you can actually go into this. First of all, you can go into Artory for free, but then you can also go deeper into the systems your collectors area, where you become an anonymous collector. Not anonymous to Christie’s, because we don’t want to get in touch with people who, legally spoken, we are not supposed to buy or sell an art work. But the due diligence process is not done by us. It’s done by what we call a vetting partner.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what does the buyer see when they go into this private area with I guess their special key.

Nanne Dekking: That can vary. In this case they will actually see the bills of sales of the Ebsworth family when they acquired the work. That’s something that has been scanned and that will be put in their private collector’s area.

Steve Schindler: Which is not something they would have seen before they bought it, right?

Nanne Dekking: No.

Steve Schindler: That’s not public. That’s interesting.

Nanne Dekking: That’s not public. Yeah. There is a lot you can do. By the way you can also — I don’t want to sell Artory, but you can also download your own information and digitalize it and put it in that private anonymous.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Okay. That was another question.

Steve Schindler: I guess if you paid $92 million for the Hopper then you see the bill of sale for something a lot less than that you might feel a little bad.

Katie Wilson-Milne: They should know.

Nanne Dekking: Well people better get used to it.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So let’s say you buy a work from this collection at Christie’s. You get all this sort of private provenance detail that wouldn’t have been in the Christie’s catalogue that only you can see with this card and this key. And then when you go to sell it or you loan it are you supposed to put that information — additional provenance information that it goes to the Met for a show or goes to Paris for a show. Do you put that in the Artory blockchain as well?

Nanne Dekking: You know we don’t want any owners to put any information in. By the way, why would you? You always want the Metropolitan Museum to put the information in there.

Katie Wilson-Milne: That makes sense.

Nanne Dekking: That’s all what we hope for in the future. But we started a product. It was a soft launch. We now have 90 records in the Artory database. But what will happen is with those records that I spoke about that we have acquired that database will be up in stages. In March there will be millions of records up. In half a year it will be like 7 million etcetera. And meanwhile we are talking with many other parties such as Christie’s or museums to collaborate with us and become a vetting partner. And what happens is the moment an art work is actually from this Ebsworth Collection, from Christie’s it shows up completely differently from the unvetted records. So what you start to create is data integrity at least you can see which records in the Artory database are just records because it was scraped. And we know that it was a sale that took place with this art work. But you also have the records from more trusted organizations such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Steve Schindler: What happens if whoever purchased let’s just say the Hopper Chop Suey work that was sold at Christie’s. The person who bought that then turns around in 6 months and sells it privately to someone else who then sells it to someone else. Presumably that is not necessarily on the blockchain that you could have a gap in ownership?

Nanne Dekking: You can lose works.

Steve Schindler: Sure.

Nanne Dekking: But what we hope for is of course that we won’t lose these works and that the private dealer who sells it will have you an evaluation done by Christie’s, Sotheby’s or another company that’s allowed, legally spoken, to do evaluation because we would accept evaluation also as a point of entry into the database. That’s information that we would also then put into the blockchain and provide the new owner so the evaluation company can then give the new owner the card with the name of the entity that they are on it.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what if the card gets lost? This owner — the buyer from Christie’s gets this card and a key and you know let’s say they go to sell it through a private dealer. Does this system entirely depend on the fact that they are going to say to the dealer or the appraiser they work with, “these records are being updated on Artory. I want to keep this up to date and pass this card along to the new owner.” How much are you relying on those actors?

Nanne Dekking: We are relying on those actors.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Who you won’t know about.

Nanne Dekking: Let that be sure. We are relying on — you have to rely on someone. It’s not that we want to work with 5000 auction houses in the world or anything. We want to make sure that you keep that group small. And by the way now we are working with Christie’s but ultimately there should be an independent body that decides who can actually work with Artory? It cannot be just me deciding that or my team. But also it’s such an interesting question because also my shareholders the main question was also what if you lose the card? And then I said well what do you do if you lose your credit cards?

Katie Wilson-Milne: I promise people are going to ask.

Nanne Dekking: You go to the bank and so if you lose your card you go to the issuing party.

Katie Wilson-Milne: They don’t come to you. They go back to Christie’s.

Nanne Dekking: No. They should never come to us. Not because we don’t want to take the responsibility but we don’t want to know who these people are. So they have to go back to Christie’s and what we will do, we would issue a new card but we would also issue a new block in the chain with the exact information that Christie’s at that time gave.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Which is that there was a lost card.

Nanne Dekking: Exactly.

Steve Schindler: So it’s not quite like a crypto currency where it seems like if you lose the key then it’s very, very difficult to get it.

Nanne Dekking: I read about that. Do you imagine?

Steve Schindler: Here there is at least a source that is capable of issuing a duplicate.

Nanne Dekking: Right.

Steve Schindler: Okay.

Katie Wilson-Milne: The key problems it seems like Artory is trying to address are the ones you identified earlier of transparency, provenance, authenticity, concerns like that that can get stuck and hidden in any node of art transactions over time because they are often not recorded at all. And if they are recorded, those papers get lost or they are in private hands.

Nanne Dekking: Exactly. It’s dispersed.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But just because you are creating this sort of digital opportunity doesn’t mean that people are going to be more willing to put information into it. So what is your sort of psychological strategy to get people to populate this amazing platform that you have been able to build with good engineers?

Steve Schindler: Particularly the people who you identified earlier as profiting from a lack of transparency and dealers sort of pop up as those people.

Nanne Dekking: True. It’s a very legit question, of course because sometimes I also wonder is anyone going to use it? You don’t want to create a product that no one is going to use it. It’s an interesting product because we have B to B side, business to business side with the respected players in the art market. But the most important part is of course the B to C part whether the clients want it? The irony is that we have been dealing only so far with very expensive art, whereas the real use case is to my opinion at the $50,000, $10,000, $80,000 level especially if you buy multiples or if you buy contemporary art, even from not the most famous artist in the world. The fact that if you talk about a moment of creation with the contemporary artist, the fact that an artist can cryptographically sign that I made it. This is the title I gave to it. I mean people who know a little bit about catalogue raisonnés, how tough it even is for people to remember what actually the title of an art work was and a description of the artist as well. That’s a huge, huge case for which you start — again you have to go to B to B first. You have to mobilize galleries to believe in this. But we have been in touch with many contemporary galleries who love this idea. You need some big artist to begin with to endorse this.

And you have to — then if you talk about the dead artist, to say it disrespectfully, you have to make sure that you create records that at least the chain starts somewhere, that this is the last statement on record. And if you talk about multiples, like photography, I mean this is great. I just bought at TEFAF two photographs. I am not a big — I am a big collector but not a collector in the multi-million dollar range, not even in hundreds of thousands of dollars range. For me it was a lot of money, these two photographs. And what do I do, founder of Artory, I bought them because I trusted that woman who told me — the lady who told me that you know there were only 20 made. I was like how cool would it have been if she could tell me — and by the way all 20 of them will be registered.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. And you don’t know where the other 18 are.

Nanne Dekking: I have no idea. That something that baffled me also that I did it. I bought these two art works but I sincerely believe to create a completely new buyer’s experience with giving people the reassurance. And we are not giving them the reassurance. The dealers and the gallery owners, they should give that reassurance to their clients.

Steve Schindler: Right.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But do the clients want it? I mean this is something Steve and I encounter all the time. There is just a resistance to formalization even at the very high end of the art market. And I think that’s largely cultural and it’s shifting somewhat because the buyers in the art market are people who work in finance who are used to paper and they have staff who look at things and write it down. And so there is —

Nanne Dekking: That’s the top echelon.

Katie Wilson-Milne: It’s the top echelon exactly. It’s a very slow shift in a very small part of the art market but it’s amazing to me all the time how closely people guard this idea of a handshake personal relationship. And I think even know that it’s illogical and there is risk to it but there is something so profound about that identity of the art world being these like series of interpersonal relationships in a way that other creative industries are not. You know music, publishing have gotten over this a long time ago because everything is written down. People get automatic license fees.

Nanne Dekking: Right.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But the art dealers I guess the value they add is that they can bring some order to that chaos, right. That they are a repository of information, that you can trust them but they are the only people you can trust so you have to go to them. And does that role become obsolete in a world in which the history of a work is publicly accessible?

Nanne Dekking: Well I don’t think their role becomes obsolete but their role becomes significantly different. Let’s start with one observation. The art market hasn’t grown in 10 years, unbelievable. The amount of wealth that was added in 10 years, the amount of education, the educational level, many people are very well educated. Lots of people have access to funds they hadn’t had before. They don’t buy art. I sincerely believe there is a reason for that because they don’t trust that information and I think that’s something you can change. But again, of course, in the upper echelons on the art market people have their own advisors and they also like to be become part of that elite group. And they buy themselves, disrespectfully because it’s not always the case. But there is something like you buy yourself into a board of the Metropolitan Museum or you buy yourself into the art world. You become part of a certain social group. I sincerely believe that many people don’t want to buy themselves into a social group. Lots of people have no time anymore. It’s hard enough to see your own friends and people don’t have time to spend the whole day with a dealer to see if you can trust that person.

And there is another thing that happens is Google was invented. Sorry to say but there are very respectable scholars working for the big auction houses who know everything about a certain mediocre artist from Rimini in the 14th century. And guess what, the moment you go on Google you know more about that artist, even more than the guy who stands there very posh and sees himself as the person who knows everything about that artist. I mean things are changing and they are changing rapidly. They haven’t changed rapidly in the art world but it’s always hard to bet on people not buying. I know that. But if I look at all the numbers and we have done a lot of research. We have read all these reports. I mean every report is unanimous whether it’s Deloitte or the TEFAF report or Art Basel report there is actually a huge repository of people not buying art who would actually like to buy art if they would trust that information.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Is that because they are not in the club already? You know there is this world of people in, you know, the upper echelons of the art market which is very much like a club as you said. And if you are non art person with a lot of money is it part of the problem that you feel that that’s inaccessible because of the opacity that you know just it’s not like buying a car or a watch. That something about the art world if you are not already in it just feels impenetrable?

Nanne Dekking: I think it feels very impenetrable to many people and honestly spoken it is. And I have worked in that business at the highest echelon of the market for many years. And I had access to the biggest clients in the world and I even had to brief three times before I would walk into the viewing rooms myself. It is very imposing. I find it very interesting that people in Silicon Valley, for example, don’t buy a lot of art. They don’t want to belong to a group. They are hip. They don’t care. They don’t have to be in the Upper East Side to become part of a certain crowd. They are well established people themselves and they are individuals.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what technology, I mean speak about Artory but if there is a broader category or other examples of technology please speak about that. I mean, is there a role for technology to change this culture in the art world and broadly innovate? And if there is what is it about those technologies that’s offering something new?

Nanne Dekking: Right. Well any kind of database is of course already a technology that will help the art world. But it will only help the art world if they stop keeping all that information to themselves so it’s a very siloed environment.

Steve Schindler: Right and if the entry points are trustworthy because you know the notion of garbage-in, garbage-out holds for any kind of database. And we mentioned Wikipedia before. If anybody can just put information into a database then it loses its trustworthiness.

Nanne Dekking: I’m a very good sleeper but that actually sometimes keeps me awake that there are so many initiatives out there where blockchain is described as if it would fix things, right?

Katie Wilson-Milne: It’s just a ledger.

Nanne Dekking: It’s just a ledger. It’s a great invention. And I think it’s a very important invention that goes much further than many inventions in the whole tech world for a long time for at least the last 10 years but it doesn’t solve any problems unless we use it wisely. Everybody realizes that art market can be different and that more people will buy art and people try to democratize that process. And blockchain is often used as a technique that could help that. I would be very much afraid if all the knowledge that’s already there in the art world just be disregarded right now. That’s to your point, I think scholars will still be needed because we want to make sure that the right information is in there. I’m not saying you can now fire immediately every specialist at Sotheby’s and Christie’s but their work will be much easier because there is a starting point from where they can actually do research. That would even help their clients as well. It’s a very rushed environment in an auction house. They don’t have a lot of time to do research. And they do have to do a lot of search because the information is not shared. So every time an art work is sold the new team at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, the specialists have to do all the research again. And here they could actually maybe dig a little bit deeper and do very thorough research on certain things that were not yet known about the art work.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So is there an opportunity then for an auction house like Christie’s or Sotheby’s to use the Artory platform internally? Like could they create ledger only accessible to staff of Christie’s that has this research that’s kept there so that in 10 years when a totally new team of people are looking at the same work, they pull it up?

Nanne Dekking: They potentially could do that. Not with us, but they could potentially create their own system using blockchain technology as well. I believe that it would still limit themselves because it will just be their information or — albeit Sotheby’s and Christie’s sit on a lot of information but needless to say Sotheby’s and Christie’s together sit on a lot more information. And when we get private dealers and we already have the commitment of a few private dealers to start adding information you create a much bigger repository. And the other thing that we have a repository of millions of art works and of course much of it is unvetted information. But then the beauty of these kinds of technologies as well is that so you own an art work. You go in Artory and you see the art work that you have just bought for $20,000 has an unvetted record on Artory, that’s a blummer. It’s like other art works look much better than mine. Through us you can actually reach out to the last dealer on record and you can claim your art work and that last dealer on record can actually verify that you are the person who bought it. And it’s a push of the button and their art work looks verified as well. These people will, because when they contact Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonhams whatever. They have a new client or they can reengage with a client because it’s someone — we don’t know who these people are. We don’t want to become a sales platform, but they get a huge repository of sourcing material and potential clients.

Steve Schindler: So it’s a service that some of these, like an auction house or dealer can perform for an existing client.

Nanne Dekking: Exactly.

Steve Schindler: Of course we are both lawyers, and you know I have to think about this in a sort of lawyerly way.

Nanne Dekking: I was afraid for this part.

Steve Schindler: When I hear you talking about verification and verifying things. We know that we live in a world where authors of catalogue raisonnés get sued frequently for either statements that they make or for failing to include a work. There was just a big case with the Agnes Martin catalogue. Are you insulated from that somehow at Artory?

Nanne Dekking: Our lawyers tell us we are. We are insulated because we don’t create data. We don’t create records. All the records we create is created by the parties we collaborate with and their statutes of limitations are made clear with every record that we make visible. As far as we currently understand we are not liable for that maybe.

Katie Wilson-Milne: You are not. I mean one of the concerns that Steve and I have not with Artory but when we hear about blockchain and certain record keeping technologies, in the art world is that something is going to be put in incorrectly because we know that all the time provenance changes. Scholars change their minds or they discover a new owner or they discover that the author is not who they thought, just like think about the blockbuster Da Vinci sale. People still don’t know what’s going on. So this idea that the value of the blockchain is it immutability also strikes me as its real downfall that you know you put in something and it’s just wrong. How do you fix that? Obviously you can put in another entry in the blockchain that says correction to entry XXX from 10 years ago. But then you could have a lot of junk there and you can’t really curate it.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. Well if blockchain didn’t have the capability of timestamping I would totally agree with you. But the beauty of blockchain is there is a timestamp to it and you can create a new block in the chain. In certain cases it may be messy. Well let it be messy. You better know that it was messy. And I don’t know if we all know, well we know here at the table, most likely know about the Rembrandt research project, Professor van de Wetering who was the head of the research project has this incredible speech where before the intermission he very convincingly tells the world why a certain portrait of a woman in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston can be attributed by Rembrandt. And it’s so convincing. After the intermission, he tells you the exact opposite which is also true. That’s a perfect example of two blocks in a chain that should be out there.

All in all of course because of blockchain and because of the art market we start to focus on first of all the highest echelon of the market where I think the use case is not as big and we also start to focus on what goes wrong. But in the end let’s face it 95% of the things are correct and not everybody buys art because they want to hide assets. I’m not saying it’s not happening.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right but most art. Not most of the money but most art is not in that world.

Nanne Dekking: Eighty percent of the art works sold are below 50,000. By the way there is in the below $50,000 a huge use case for blockchain is all the prints.

Steve Schindler: Sure.

Nanne Dekking: If you look at the Andy Warhol prints, I mean I see numbers of 70% that’s been forged, etcetera. Blockchain would help there. At least blockchain doesn’t help but if this seller would have the courage to actually make a record of what he or she stated at the moment of the sale, whoa that gives reassurance. I can tell you the prices of Warhol prints will go up again.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what happens when you have a print — I mean the print example and multiple example has been so challenging in the art market. It’s really hard to track, especially things that are sold in private sales. So people don’t know really where the multiples are moving. But what do you do? You know you buy a work, a print and you see that that print exists. That work exists and it’s recorded in the blockchain but how do you know that you really have the real one or if you just have a copy? I see it being very useful for works that are not attributed to an artist but in terms of copies of known works where there might be an original out there somewhere but it just has never been in the public sphere.

Nanne Dekking: Well that’s a good one, of course. Well first of all it’s safer already because there is a record in blockchain and why would you want to sell an art work without that registration card that you have if you actually are the owner of that work? I’m not saying it won’t happen. It’s possible but you are connected as the owner to that art work that’s in the registry. Why would you sell the forgery using the system that’s out there —

Katie Wilson-Milne: You might not know. You might think it’s real.

Nanne Dekking: You might know. Yeah. You might think it’s real, then it’s on the public record. It’s publicly available, so maybe other people now see that it’s not real. That’s a forgery, but many people are telling us if there is a forgery on Artory you are out of business? I said no we pop open the champagne because it means that it works. There is more visibility. But to your point it would be ideal to have unique identifier on every work that’s in the Artory registry. There are also many companies who claim that they have unique identifier. I don’t believe it at all.

Steve Schindler: Yeah. They are all out there.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Like an invisible stamp but that’s an impossible task to get that.

Steve Schindler: DNA coding.

Nanne Dekking: I think and we are really close to all these developments. We thought about doing that ourselves. I believe that the real way to fix it will be a very high resolution image but that’s also very complicated. Because the kind of high res you talk about has to be such a high resolution that even the amount of humidity in a room will give it a different reading. So these solutions are not out there. But you are right I mean with the unique identifier it will be amazing. We actually built in the system already that if the unique identifier based for example on higher resolution images is that what you do is you make the geography of every art work and you say we take two little fingerprints of this very high resolution and that can actually also be hashed and put into blockchains.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Like a physical mark.

Nanne Dekking: So you can say like B15 and Z6 as if it were a game with Navy boats or whatever, you can have these two places on the painting that only we would know what to connect with what’s in the blockchain.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Are there other technologies that you are seeing that you think have the potential to solve some of these big problems in the art market? I do but you are both lawyers. I cannot imagine that some of these — when are we going to need it? We are going to need it in the case of litigation, right? So you need to create something that’s actually understandable and that really proves that you are right or proves that you are wrong. But if you talk about DNA for example it’s so tough to explain to a judge that this is actually really true. Again that comes to trust then. The solution needs to be very easy. So tagging would be the easier solution. There is a wonderful company called Tagsmart. I would like to work with them tomorrow.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And they place a physical marker on the work?

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. You know I don’t think it’s the best system. It can be removed. It can be manipulated but not necessarily the best systems make it. So maybe that’s going to be a temporary solution.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Is it a marker that’s scanned digitally? Like what is the technology?

Nanne Dekking: It is indeed a marker with a mnemonic code on so that could easily tag into our product as well.

Katie Wilson-Milne: When I hear about these technologies and sort of the fantasy universe in which every work of art has a physical marker. I mean the idea of doing that is so overwhelming but it strikes me that perhaps there is a younger generation of very successful artists in their studios who would be receptive to incorporating that into their practice now and have their legacy be that for the first time ever there is some generation of important contemporary artists who are more organized to have these records. We are never going to fix mid century and before.

Nanne Dekking: But let’s start now.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But let’s start now and do you have a sense in this world or possibility of technology that younger artists and studios are receptive to doing this to making records in a different way?

Nanne Dekking: You would assume so, right?

Katie Wilson-Milne: I wouldn’t assume but that’s because I know a lot of these — we represent some of these people.

Steve Schindler: It’s hard to say. But also I think in the realm of digital art we have talked about, that that’s an area where blockchain really can be incredibly helpful in preventing unauthorized copies from being distributed where you really can tag a piece of digital art in a way that you really couldn’t before.

Nanne Dekking: Exactly.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But wait you answer my question before you answer Steve’s.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. To your question actually what Steve just said.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Or together you can.

Nanne Dekking: These artists — the tech artists so to say, of course they are very tech savvy and they are well organized and they want exactly that to happen. That in perpetuity it can be seen as your art work. It’s different art, right? It lives in a digital space. It’s not something you can hang on your wall. But the traditional artists these days, it’s almost like saying that they are traditional. But like the artists as we know them the photographers, the painters, the sculptors, they are not well very organized. That’s the beauty of being an artist, right, is that you are not so well organized or at least not digitally well organized. Certain artists are but I had the huge honor to visit Ai Weiwei in his studio in Berlin and that was in the days that we actually thought that we should go after catalogue raisonnés, well that was also the moment that I knew we should not. Because Ai Weiwei is the most meticulously organized artist in the world. Everything even — everything he says is recorded. There are photographs of every process of creation of an art work but that all lives in maybe hundreds databases, in god knows how many filing cabinets and voice record storage facilities etcetera because of all of the interviews. And my tech team looked at all the information and said it will take us maybe 8 to 10 years.

Steve Schindler: Wow. Yeah.

Nanne Dekking: I mean so what do you do? It’s too much. Even a young artist, he’s a friend of mine Sebastiaan Bremer in Greenpoint. I love him to death. He is a great artist and I thought let’s go to a really young artist and even his files are already too complicated.

Katie Wilson-Milne: But he could put a marker on the finished art work. You could start in just one way if you just did the art work.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah. But then what do you do with Ai Weiwei with an art work that consists of 20,000 pebbles.

Steve Schindler: That’s very difficult.

Katie Wilson-Milne: That’s a great question. The more conceptual the art — this has always been a legal problem actually, that it’s very hard to protect conceptual art in a way that the law defaults to protecting traditional two dimensional or three dimensional works. And you know the best way to handle that is through contracts because copyright law and you know other laws like the New York Cultural Affairs Law really don’t work with the conceptual art in the same way but it’s not perfect. And how many artists don’t have contracts? Most. So yeah there is a big hole in which it’s just very difficult for existing systems to fit with the type of art people are making now.

Nanne Dekking: It is. I mean what do we do with Marina Abramovic? With many of her amazing performances that are art works?

Steve Schindler: But still I think, I mean one way is art certificates and that seems to be maybe compatible with blockchain, right? If you have certificates of authenticity or you know kind of Sol LeWitt-type sort of recordkeeping.

Katie Wilson-Milne: That’s all contract.

Steve Schindler: It’s all on paper. You know I think it can be tracked in the same way that you would track a canvas.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right.

Nanne Dekking: No. It’s true. You can.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Where does that piece of paper —

Nanne Dekking: Thata’s true. You can. The moment of creation would indeed be the moment for an artist to put something on that art work although as long as there is no agreement what kind of a marker will actually be accepted in the future it’s also frustrating for an artist to make that choice.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So what’s the obvious entry point? Is it – and I can see how maybe it wouldn’t be artists because it’s very hard to get artists to agree to this – is it their gallery? The real people who have potential to start a trend like this is the artist’s gallery, because they could be the ones actually putting the markers on the works as they come in.

Nanne Dekking: Exactly. Yeah. I also tend to believe that that’s going to be the solution. I also am a little hesitant to have artists to create records on Artory themselves, not that I don’t respect artists. I love and respect every artist, but I think working with galleries initially is the way to go. They have a show of 40 art works of a certain artists and those 40 artworks should be recorded by the gallery.

Katie Wilson-Milne: All right. So what do you think, Nanne, as we wrap up do you think the art world is going to be innovated by technological developments over the next 10 and 20 years? Do you think there will be major shifts?

Nanne Dekking: I don’t think there are going to be major shifts. I’m a little skeptical about what I call the transparency bubble and I’m totally in it. I realize that. I’m always at forum discussions, panels all over the world to talk about this with other people in the space. We chose a very conservative way by using blockchain only because we feel that there is a very clear use case for it, even with collaborating with the art market that initially saw us as a huge threat because they thought oh my gosh Artory wants to come pick away — steal away our business. They are going to sell art works themselves. Now people start to realize we can’t because we don’t know who these owners are. I’m not saying that now nothing can be dealt but then they should do the dealing themselves and maybe if we get a little bit of that deal it would be nice because we are not the Salvation Army either. I think it’s going to be a slow process. People in the art world are talking a lot about AI, about image recognition. There was a wonderful conference at the Frick Collection half a year ago where a lot of tech people actually spoke about these developments. It’s not very easy. It’s one thing to say image recognition is going to be fantastic. And it will indeed solve some problems if you have to start cataloging, for example, or if you want to know people’s tastes. But these systems are not yet foolproof and art at that level is not so easy as well. I mean for the most traditional media it’s possible, but for any new medium it’s going to be complicated.

I think the art world will change because it has to. When you have to change you change that’s – it’s easy like that. They don’t make a lot of money right now. It looks amazing because we only read about $80 million paintings, $90 million paintings. The art market is smaller than it was 10 years as I said before and the money is made at the highest echelon of the market. So even if you look at the market without the highest echelon, it has shrunk tremendously. Many less people are buying art right now than 10 years ago, at least 20% less or 30%. We also know that in the art market you don’t make a lot of money at the highest echelon of the market because that’s where the most competition is. Maybe I’m naïve and maybe next year I’m selling paintings again but I believe it will change because people don’t want to buy anything anymore when you are not sure about what you are actually buying.

Katie Wilson-Milne: So the buyers are going to put pressure on the art market in a way that it’s going to have to innovate to have some transparency in terms of where things —

Nanne Dekking: I think the situation is currently so bad that nobody puts pressure on the art market. People just don’t buy. But I think the moment the biggest players like Sotheby’s and Christie’s start, of course I’m very happy that they will collaborate with us, but you know the moment initiatives like ours will be endorsed by the big market players then I think as a buyer you have actually a very good chance to go to your seller and say hey I want more reassurance. That’s also why we bought this big database because we want these millions of people that are behind the record to go to their seller and say hey I don’t want to be shown like a record of existence. My art work is there. I bought dearly for it and I want it to be recorded.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Right.

Nanne Dekking: Yeah.

Steve Schindler: At a very mundane level we are dealing also with a generation that doesn’t like to buy things without reviews, right?

Nanne Dekking: True.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. It’s a good point.

Steve Schindler: I mean this sort of instant validation, online validation just basically carries through to all kinds of purchases that we make everyday so to some extent why shouldn’t that exist in the art world?

Nanne Dekking: Well that’s the beauty, because I learned with the startup company that you really have to focus and we dream a lot. I dream a lot. I love to dream and I love to dream big. So I dreamed a lot about all the things you can do with whenever an art work that you own a similar art work is sold at another auction or there is in Tokyo an exhibition of a similar photograph that you own we put it all in that bucket with your art work not blockchain secured but just at an informative level. We are going to do it for sure. Because that’s where I think you can then make the difference. But what we first needed to do was to convince people in the art market that we were not after their business. We are clearly after a business, I mean, we are a for profit organization, but I think we can make profit without selling art works. And hopefully they can sell more because of that.

Steve Schindler: Yeah.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Well, thank you Nanne.

Steve Schindler: Thank you Nanne.

Nanne Dekking: Thank you.

Steve Schindler: This was great. And that’s it for today’s podcast. Please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and send us feedback at and if you like what you hear, give us a five star rating. We are also featuring the original music of Chris Thompson and finally we want to thank our fabulous producer Jackie Santos for making us sound so good.

Katie Wilson-Milne: Until next time I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.

Steve Schindler: And I’m Steve Schindler bringing you the Art Law Podcast, a podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.

Katie Wilson-Milne: And vice versa. The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be a source of legal advice. You should not consider the information provided to be an invitation for an attorney-client relationship. You should not rely on the information as legal advice for any purpose and should always seek the legal advice of a competent counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.

Music by Chris Thompson.  Produced by Jackie Santos.