With the lights turned off in museums and galleries thanks to the coronavirus, artists are now presenting their work in the digital glow of online showrooms.
Last month, Art Basel, an annual mecca for the globetrotting, art-buying class, showcased an estimated $270 million worth of paintings, sculptures and other fine art for view by anyone with an internet connection. This one virtual viewing room was just the beginning for an industry kneecapped by shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates, the New York Times reported.
This step towards democratizing access to art comes with its own handicaps. Physical artifacts brought online have a tendency to be reproduced and defaced. A once unique masterpiece – priceless in theory – becomes worthless if you can’t prove its authenticity, trust the seller or stop its forgery.
“If you’re buying in a digital showroom from a competent dealer, there’s a certain level of trust,” Harry Rinker, founder of Rinker Consulting, an appraisal firm specializing in antiques, art and collectibles, said in an interview. “But the truth is there are so many digital auction sites … there’s a certain risk for the average collector to be burned.”
As the traditional, $67.4 billion art market learns to adapt to this weird interlude – where time seems refracted and human connection is made impossible – the nascent industry of blockchain-based art galleries is seeing its value tested in real time. Long predicted as an inevitable disruptor to the art market, blockchain is now a potential lifeline as all art goes digital.
Just as bitcoin paved the way for trustless, peer-to-peer transactions by creating a shared ledger of events, crypto art, typically appended to the Ethereum blockchain as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), has provenance built in. This transparent, immutable record of ownership is not only central to a functioning digital art economy but an…