Authenticity is Key: How Artclear is Unlocking the Value of Prints and Photographs

Man Ray, ‘Le Violon d’Ingres', 1924, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Man Ray, ‘Le Violon d’Ingres', 1924, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Man Ray’s ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924) broke records at Christie’s in New York on Saturday 14 May. Selling for $12.4 million, it is the most expensive photograph to ever go under the hammer and a significant premium on the $4.3 million set by the previous record holder in 2011: Andreas Gursky’s ‘Rhein II’ (1999) – a landscape photograph from an edition of 6.

While impressive, this figure is modest when compared with the other record breaking sale of the week, Andy Warhol’s ‘Blue Shot Sage Marilyn’ (1964), which sold in New York for $195 million, the second highest price ever achieved for an artwork. Number one, which sold in 2017 for more than double this - $450 million - was Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ (1490-1500).

Significant to the difference in these values compared to ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ is the medium: painting vs. photography. As, the Art Basel and UBS Art Market 2022 report indicates, while photography and prints are among the most widely collected artwork mediums, their value is significantly lower than those of painting or drawing. So why is this?

Explaining the record breaking value of ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’, ArtNews write:

“The print of the iconic Man Ray photograph, which depicts his muse Kiki de Montparnasse, is a rare one in that it is considered an original photographic [print]”

Originality – and by extension Authenticity – are key to understanding the value given to different artwork categories.

Prints are reproductions of a single image produced in multiples. With technological developments, especially in relation to photographic printing, it is much easier for fakes and copies to be produced in near perfect accuracy. This makes it hard to determine the authenticity of photographs and other types of print, decreasing the value of the medium as a whole.

Auction hammer

What is the role of provenance in an artwork's value?

A reliable provenance can increase an artwork’s value, as was the case with the Man Ray photograph. If an artwork can be traced from the artist’s studio to the present owner, with a trail of only verifiable and bona fide dealers, galleries, collectors, etc in between, it has the best chance of being confirmed as authentic.

Clear-cut provenance is not always easy to determine however, and an artwork does not necessarily arrive at auction house or dealer with one attached, so provenance must be determined, as far as is possible, through manual research into auction records, exhibition history, and other documentation. Since this cannot always be verified, the value of the artwork can suffer.

Smartphone screen with verifying tick

How can blockchain be used to support confirmation of artwork authenticity?

Blockchains are essentially secure record keeping systems - not more or less. A blockchain stores data across a collection of nodes (computers) in different locations. There is no single point of failure in a blockchain, making this ‘de-centralised’ system significantly less vulnerable to attack and manipulation than a typical database. 

As such many companies and individuals across industries have seen the potential for blockchain to securely record transactions or other data, that can be used in attribution and object tracking records (provenance).

Having a rock-solid provenance record for an artwork is one thing. But the physical object – in this case a photograph – can still be swapped for a lookalike. So, the problem of securing the object to record remains.

Le Violon d'Ingres being photographed by a smartphone user
Photograph: Justin Cheng, via The Value

How can you connect the physical object to the digital blockchain record?

While a handful of companies are developing solutions to this problem, these revolve around NFC tags or stickers that must be fixed to the artwork. These products undermine the physical integrity of an art object – after all how many collectors would want to stick a tag on their $4 million, nearly 100 year old Man Ray photograph? Not only this, but tags and stickers can also be tampered with, removed or corrupted.

The Artclear solution is unique – our scanners detect the microscopic differences inherent in every object. Our algorithms then use these details to verify one object against another, even inkjet prints from the same series. This process takes only minutes to complete (You can learn more about this here).

Data collected from the scan is used to generate a digital fingerprint identifier, which is stored on the blockchain to create an indelible link to records such as certificates of authenticity, provenance, and title. In this way, without destabilising the physical integrity of the work, Artclear uses the physical qualities inherent to the object to ‘attach’ secure digital records to the artwork.

Artclear enables art pieces, including photographs and limited editions, to be verified as original and authentic artworks. Where contemporary photographers produce new work from their studios, or in the secondary market when reliable records or trustworthy expert attestations are made, the corresponding records and certificates of authenticity can be connected to the print editions in perpetuity.

Not only adding value to individual artworks, Artclear certification ensures that the uniqueness and value of prints and multiples can't be copied.