Blockchain to Help Eliminate the Middlemen in the Luxury Industryby Sacha Huber June 3, 2016
Blockchain’s increasing popularity is now being embraced by a wide range of industries. Start-ups are being created by people across the world who have a desire to use blockchain’s revolutionary ledger technology to improve their specialist industry, and to further support causes they are passionate about.
Today this is rarely being witnessed more clearly than in the art world, where blockchain is set to have a seismic impact. FinTech start-ups are discovering just how blockchain’s cryptographically secure network can be used to verify the ownership of art and its capability in reducing the number of forgeries and licensing disputes.
Breaking up the closed deals market
At present, middlemen are routinely used to close deals between buyers and sellers of art, with the middleman’s role being to ensure trust and market liquidity. As with many systems currently in use around the world, therefore, these middlemen are effectively the centralized entities.
With an increasing amount of art being traded online, however, the demand for authenticity certificates has increased, which a middleman can’t always produce, or be relied upon by either party to always be operating honestly and independently. The decentralized basis upon which blockchain operates removes the need for this middleman; instead, a worldwide ledger that securely stores records of certificates and previous verifications will allow artists, art collectors and even insurers to be able to perform instant authenticity verifications.
Indeed, verifying authenticity is a critical function of the art industry. When purchasing art, buyers want to be fully secure in the knowledge that the artwork is genuine, especially as the art world is currently riddled with forgeries. Buyers are not able to fully ascertain, for example, whether multiple pieces of a supposedly unique artwork have been created. According to German artist Stephan Vogler, blockchain could solve this authenticity problem.
The decentralised ledger can use metadata – a ‘hash’ value – which can allow others to uniquely identify data, and in doing so, provide them with a guarantee that the artwork has been licensed and its integrity has not been compromised. Transactions cannot proceed without consensus among blockchain’s network participants. Under blockchain, therefore, the license can’t tampered with, which ensures that the artist’s works function as tradable assets with inherent value, which Vogler describes as “preserving the features of digital art while making it a scarce good at the same time”.
A Los Angeles-based start-up called Verisart announced in July 2015 that it is using the blockchain to provide digital security to physical works of art which can be verified instantaneously. Both artists and collectors will be able to use the distributive technology to build a global ledger that will be able to document, verify and certify artworks. By equipping the blockchain with a unique hash value for each artwork, a distinguishable but secure, and purely transparent set of recordings can be created.
The technology will also provide a layer of protection for sensitive information pertaining to buyer and seller. Indeed, the anonymity of a decentralised ledger is an appealing feature, according to Verisart founder Robert Norton, who believes that “powerful encryption to mask the identities of buyer and seller will be attractive to the art world”.
In contrast with physical works of art, digital art can take on a variety of forms, all with the aid of a computer. This, however, renders the artwork with problems surrounding authenticity protection and rightful ownership of the piece. The problem today for digital artists is the pressure of having to give much of their art away for free. The art ends up in the hands of platforms who have the ability to monetise it, while the artist receives nothing. The problem for buyers, meanwhile, is that the digital art can be reproduced at no cost, which makes it difficult for the buyer to ascertain if he/she is in possession of the original artwork.
A tool now being developed to improve the digital art marketplace, Monegraph, provides information about the origins of an artwork whilst also clarifying the buyer’s rights upon purchasing an artwork. Monegraph intends to simplify the process for digital artists to construct licenses which can officially authorise the commercial use of their work. The licenses are split into 4 broad categories, which range from allowing non-commercial use of their work, to giving all rights to the buyer upon purchase.
While Monegraph itself will store vital information including identification of the original artist and the current owner, the information will also be recorded on the blockchain. The company has stated that blockchain will provide a verifiable record of specific contracts being executed, as well as any associated licenses, which can’t be hacked. With each transfer work securely logged on the ledger, Monegraph can ensure who owns a digital piece of art at each moment can be easily ascertained.
The diamond industry also looks set to undergo significant changes under blockchain. FinTech company Everledger is using the technology to create a ledger which can store information about the origins of each diamond, thus reducing its potential to be used for nefarious purposes in the future. While certification which stipulates a diamond’s origin does currently exist in paper form, it can’t be constantly updated or accessed remotely, unlike Everledger’s blockchain-inspired ledger. Paper-based records can also be easily subjected to forgery.
The ledger works by collecting 40 data points on each diamond that describe the physical appearance of each diamond, as well as its serial number and the ‘four Cs’ – cut, clarity, colour and carat weight. Everledger CEO Leanne Kemp uses the help of certified diamond laboratories for this process, explaining that the laboratories effectively “digitize” the diamond, which Everledger takes to “put the digitized fingerprint into the blockchain”. Kemp has also explicitly stated that blockchain’s technology is being employed primarily for its immutability. Once an entry is written into Everledger’s ledger, it can’t be changed or manipulated – a vital property that is required to tackle fraud.
By cross-referencing this data against the ledger to determine a diamond’s origins, therefore, it can stop the diamond from being sold for an exorbitant price. In this way, the ledger protects the interests of potential diamond buyers. Furthermore, data regarding ownership and provenance can be recorded on the ledger which makes the product difficult to resell. The digital fingerprint can be removed by criminals by recutting the diamond, but this is an expensive process to undertake, while the recut diamond itself is substantially lower in value than the original stone.
Moreover, the existence of an immutable record of a diamond’s history will allow mining companies to ensure that the diamonds they are producing in rough-cut form will not eventually be used as ‘blood diamonds’ – diamonds used by militias to fund insurgencies. Securely tracking and tracing such diamonds along the blockchain will ensure they don’t end up in the wrong hands. Blood diamonds are currently estimated to make up 4% of the global diamond trade – this could be all but stamped out by blockchain.
Advantage of Blockchain in Real-Estate
Given how antiquated some of its business processes are at present, real estate could experience some of the most fundamental changes to its industry. Much of blockchain’s influence on the process at this stage is concerned with transfer of land titles and government ownership of land records – both of which are expected to drastically improve on blockchain’s distributive ledger. Much like the art and diamond industries, the advantage blockchain has over traditional methods of real estate business is the immutability of the ledger.
At present, buyers and sellers exchange paper contracts pertaining to title companies, title insurance and many other items of business, which is being increasingly regarded as inefficient. In developing countries, moreover, such paper records are often stored by the government and are exposed to widespread fraudulent activity.
Among the multitude of ostensible benefits to the real estate industry, finding figures of comparable sales for similar properties could be considerably improved upon under blockchain. Currently, this process is made difficult because owners often keep such price information private. Stuart Appley, CTO of San-Francisco-based commercial real estate company Shorenstein Co., is keen to see this information shifted onto the blockchain ledger. While preserving the anonymity of the key parties involved in the real estate deal, price information could be gathered easily and quickly, as could information about the property itself, such as address, previous owners and tenants.
Ultimately, the efficiencies associated with blockchain could see the elimination of real estate entities such as title companies and other intermediaries. While the complexity of blockchain’s technology means that this may not happen for a some time, the wheels are undoubtedly in motion, and 2016 could witness some comprehensive changes.