What Blockchain can (and can’t) do for the antiquities trade

Can Blockchain help ensure the Metropolitan Museum will not acquire more looted material like this Gilded Coffin?

Last March I participated in Cardozo’s Arts and Entertainment Law Journal Spring Symposium on the topic of Digital Art & Blockchain. I learned a lot about this new technology, and wrote a bit about how Blockchain can impact the antiquities trade. Here’s the abstract to my essay:

Blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies, offers promise to shift the gathering and sharing of information in profound ways. It could help form a new kind of financial system that limits current inefficiencies, or even radically change how parties enter into contract, or monitor supply chains. The technology’s distributed ledger allows users in a network to monitor and access peer-to-peer digital transactions in real time. This digital ledger allows users to maintain this information securely by encrypting and allowing access only to those who have permission, given by cryptographic keys.

For the art market, blockchain offers a tantalizing possibility: a verifiable provenance research platform that would eliminate or minimize the problems with title history, authenticity, and looting, which have long-plagued the art and antiquities market. This essay examines whether blockchain might offer a chance for the antiquities market to remedy its persistent problems. The antiquities market has been beleaguered by the sale of forgeries, allowed stolen material to find a market, been hampered by market inefficiencies, and even been a haven for looted archaeological material. Distributed ledgers and blockchain could alleviate or eliminate these problems, but only if the market and those who shape it want to utilize them. No technology, no matter how ingenious or elegant, can end problems caused by the unprincipled actors in the antiquities trade. Such change has to come about with a culture shift and continued pressure by regulators and cultural heritage advocates.

Assessing the Viability of Blockchain to Impact the Antiquities Trade
Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2019

One thought on “What Blockchain can (and can’t) do for the antiquities trade”

  1. Mr. Fincham,

    I’ve been a pioneer in the U.S. Government’s efforts to address archaeological site looting and the international trade (illicit and licit) and sale of antiquities. Your article touches on what I see as the cornerstone issues plaguing the antiquities trade. Unfortunately, you have a one-sided, misconceived view, thus I question your interest to truly find solutions to resolve the problem.

    The global trade in antiquities is mired in centuries old practices. Source countries permitted the rampant sale of their cultural items for millennia and most still do. When you mention “culture shift” you can’t ignore or hide the fact that the world’s source countries desperately are in need of a culture shift, a shift to educate and sensitize their populous to respect and admire their cultural history. Source countries operate as if they were more forced by the 1970 UNESCO Convention to fain interest in the issue. I would consider the concern for lack of internal regulations, site registration and identification, and government corruption in source countries as a major “market inefficiency”. The market countries are equally “unprincipled actors” and primarily responsible for “persistent problems.”

    Please understand, I founded and was the Head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s International art and Antiquity Theft Investigations Program. I know what source countries can do better as well as what antiquities dealers/collectors could do better as well, but taking a one-sided approach, as you do, does nothing to close the gap. Source countries, INTERPOL, U.S. law enforcement, UNESCO should talk to the dealers in the trade. I brought New York Antiquities Dealers to a meeting at the UNESCO Office in New York. You would be amazed at the outcome. All sides were less apart than you report. All sides shared common interests; and all sides seemed interested in continuing the dialogue. But when a regulatory environment over-shadows the antiquities dealers and when law enforcement publicly cries for public flogging of all dealers, what do you expect happens, the dealers contract to their corners.

    Nothing gets solved, items go underground, private sales proliferate, scholars and the public never get to see items sequestered in storage rooms, countries lose the opportunity to get items voluntarily returned and the market doesn’t get clearance from a source country to sell an item deemed not “of national significance” or culturally significant.”

    I currently work at a law firm in NYC representing antiquities dealers. The path to resolution is easy if interested. I do agree with your comment that blockchain or any other new technology could not make the antiquities trade more transparent on its own. Nothing replaces personal dialogue with a trusted commitment by all sides to make a market correction.

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