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Can blockchain solve the problem of stolen art?

The recovery of a Dhs100m Picasso this week has raised pertinent questions about tech’s potential role counteracting art crime

Tracking these valuable pieces and registering their records creates a chain of custody that documents their ownership and transfer. – Stephen Howes, Thomas Crown Art

It was a story to rival the plot of classic art heist film The Thomas Crown Affair: in 1999, the same year as the film’s remake was released, Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar was taken from a Saudi prince’s yacht in the south of France. This week, two decades later, the stolen paining was finally found.

According to AFP, the piece was recovered by Arthur Brand, the Dutch art detective dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Art World”. The discovery of the rare portrait of Maar, one of Pablo Picasso’s most influential mistresses, is the culmination of a four-year investigation into the burglary on the luxury yacht Coral Island, as she lay anchored in Antibes.

But the remarkable tale of the Dhs100 million piece highlights that there is work to be done to combat the lucrative activities of the criminal art market, estimated to be worth almost Dhs150 billion.

One innovative solution is blockchain, says Stephen Howes, an art dealer at a leading art-tech agency, the aptly named Thomas Crown Art.

The cutting-edge technology is already used by Thomas Crown Art, and Howes says that “if blockchain had been around 20 years ago, it might well have stopped this incredible Picasso piece being lost for more than two decades”. 

That, it says, enables the option to “use the physical artwork itself as a wallet making it capable of storing cryptocurrency”.

Thomas Crown Art, having employed blockchain for provenance purposes, has now created a mechanism to use physical artwork as a store of value by “walletising” each piece of art and linking it to a certificate of provenance stored on the blockchain.

Tracking these valuable pieces and registering their records creates a chain of custody that documents their ownership and transfer. – Stephen Howes, Thomas Crown Art

Art detective Arthur Brand with Picasso’s 1938 masterpiece Portrait of Dora Maar. Via AP

“The case this week shows you that crime is a problem that continues to plague our industry, impacting artists, collectors and galleries. Indeed, it’s a problem that seems to be on the rise,” says Howes.

The majority of art and antiquities on major retail bidding sites thought to be artistic fakes, and many museum art thefts involve an inside using high-level forgery techniques to produce fakes, he says.

“Blockchain provides the ability to store a permanent, immutable record of artwork at the point of creation or beyond which can be used to authenticate registered works by anyone with an internet connection,” explains Howes.

“Tracking these valuable pieces and registering their records creates a chain of custody that documents their ownership and transfer. This can include noting the pieces’ auctions, sale values, shipment and other verified information without disclosing sensitive personal data of the owners.”

All of which is reassuring for anybody thinking of saving up for a statement piece or investing in artworks – if blockchain can solve art crime, you should be able to buy in complete faith in the near future.

thomascrown.art

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