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How a Canadian company is using Blockchain technology to help prevent art crimes

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Fakes, forgeries and reprints are not new to the art world. Thanks to the internet, they have recently become even more common and social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other sites it’s become easier than ever.

Even though the social media platforms and networks have their own copyright reporting and take down procedures, using and appropriating copyrighted images and intellectual property without permission has become more common. The quality of the copies are often so good it’s hard to detect. So, what’s happening to help protect the artists?

Vandana Taxali is an intellectual property lawyer at Entcounsel, art agent and the founder of Canadian startup, Artcryption– a source that helps authenticate art and collectibles and manage intellectual property rights using distributed ledger or blockchain technology.

These include photographs, art, collectibles, video works, AR, VR, sculptures, public art, murals as well as collectibles like jewellery.

She has helped many of her clients deal with copyright infringement, forgeries, and fakes. And if her name sounds familiar, it may also be because her brother is Gary Taxali – a well-known fine artist and illustrator who is in Taschen’s latest publication on the top 100 Illustrators.

Gary also exhibits at galleries around the world including Jonathan Levine Gallery projects, Matthew Namour gallery in Montreal, and the 10th anniversary display at the Lazarides gallery in which his works were shown beside Banksy’s. His editorial clients include The New York Times, LA Times, and The New Yorker among others. He has also collaborated with the Royal Canadian Mint putting his work on coins. Gary is a co-founder of Artcryption.

“Legal recourses are expensive and time consuming and do not always produce the results — blockchain technology can help,” said Vandana. “For instance, take the case of Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies who purchased an artwork from the late famed artist Norval Morrisseau in 2005 for $20,000. In 2010, the AGO wanted to exhibit it but later took it down as it may have been a fake. In 2012, Kevin Hearn sued the gallery, Maslak McLeod Gallery.”

Vandana continues to tell us, the Ontario Superior Court finally decided the case last year on May 24, 2018 and found that there was “evidence of the existence of a forgery ring in Morrisseau’s hometown of Thunder Bay, headed by a local criminal.”

The judge in the case, Justice Edward M. Morgan noted that he did, “not doubt [the] existence and the circulation of fraudulent paintings produced there.” Art experts testified on both sides, disagreeing about whether it was a fake or not.

Vandana explains, “If the original records of ownership of the painting were recorded on the blockchain, this could have helped prove whether it was an authentic Morrisseau or not.” If all artists record their work on the blockchain in the future, then questions of authenticity and ownership can be prevented. It will also prevent artists from having to go to court to prove that they didn’t create a work.

Update: The Court of Appeal on September 3, 2019 overturned the trial judge’s decision and sided with collector, Kevin Hearn over the authenticity of the Noval Morrisseau work titled, “Spirit Energy of Mother Earth”. Hearn was awarded costs.


How does Artcryption work?

Vandana explains, “immutable artwork records such as chain of title, provenance, and authenticity can all be recorded permanently on the blockchain with a date and time stamp irreversibly making it impossible to change or modify those records.”

This can demonstrate proof that an artwork was created at a certain date and time. This is similar to a copyright registration, in which one registers their work with the copyright office. Like in copyright, an artist doesn’t submit the actual work, but recording its creation on the chain gives the artist a presumption that he or she owns the work, leaving the burden of proof with the opposing party.”

The unique interesting aspect of protecting copyright through blockchain is that now digital art works can also be protected. Vandana curates the fine art themes through the Samsung Galaxy store and those digital works used as artist designed wallpapers for Samsung phone owners can now be protected from copyright infringement by recording their details on the Artcryption platform.

Blockchain technology, Vandana tells us, can act as a less expensive alternative to registering your copyright with government offices to show proof of existence. Artcryption also plans to connect art tags with encrypted information about each piece of artwork on the blockchain to help verify authenticity.


How Artcrytion started

Vandana began learning about blockchain and was certified with Blockmatics at a workshop in Dallas, Texas and through The Blockchain Hub at Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in early 2018.

It was while learning about blockchain over the last few years and how the technology could help her clients and then going through these blockchain certifications that she decided to make it happen. From there, Artcryption was born.

Vandana proposed her venture idea to the program manager at The Blockchain Hub, Mohamed El Kandri who was also interested in the idea and agreed to come on as an advisor and assist with business development and strategy. Marek Laskowski, the co-founder of the Blockchain Lab and former PhD professor in data science at York University, also came on board as an advisor.

Stephen Ranger (Vice President of Business Development at Waddingtons Auction House – Canada’s largest auction house) and Nancy Parke-Taylor (legal counsel for Mondex – a company that deals with art crimes) are also advisors. Vandana also credits advisors like Frank Erschen, a finance and pitch guru who is also a mentor at Communitech and the Ryerson DMZ for his support.

“We are also working with a branding and marketing company, Community Agency (Pulp & Fiber), and one of the co-founders Art Mandalas, who is also on the board of the Design Exchange and a key supporter of the venture.”

Artcryption went through the Founders Institute Toronto accelerator in which Sunil Sharma is the managing director. It was there that she met Tracy Leparulo of Untraceable, one of the mentors at Founders Institute, the brainchild behind the Blockchain Futurist Conference (one of the most talked about blockchain conferences in Canada).

The conference offered attendees a chance to see an exhibition of artworks hashed to the blockchain. The exhibition was in collaboration with Troy Seidman of Caviar 20 and well-known artists including Travis Coburn, Gary Taxali, Jack Youngerman, Friedel Dzubas, Sorel Etrog, Lizz Aston, and Franciso Sobrino.

The company is also part of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Ideaboost Network Connect, which is made up of approximately 70 of Canada’s leading tech entrepreneurs who work in sports, media, and entertainment.

They exhibited this past week at the Future Festival by Trend Hunter where the CFC invited them as one of the digital media tech companies. Artcryption has the support of other arts organizations including Arts Etobicoke, Mural Routes, Canadian Film Centre, Onsite at OCAD University, and Trinity Square Video to provide blockchain education to the art world.

While the art world has a long way to go in relation to art crimes, Artcryption is helping to move it in the right direction.