“Blockchain Is a Perfect Record Keeper”: Could the Viral NFT Craze Help Countries Reclaim Their Stolen Art?

Non-fungible tokens, better known as NFTs, are the new Uggs—everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon, no matter how questionable the choice. Paris Hilton has NFTs. So, it seems, does every major media company. Mark Cuban is bullish. As of last week, one online broker surmised that NFTs now make up a significant pillar of the digital economy. 

So far the craze’s primary vehicle has been digital ephemera designed to immortalize—and entertain—the über-wealthy, but independent artists have also pointed to NFTs as a means of earning income. While the dominant topic of conversation has been the financial extravaganza around the trend, the nature of NFTs means they could have other, more lasting uses. For instance, the blockchain technology they rely on could potentially be used to establish the true owner of a museum artifact, even if that artifact is not physically with them. Blockchain essentially creates a digital inventory that can only be edited by said owner, with minimal risk of outside manipulation. By attaching an NFT to a piece of art or an artifact, therefore, its provenance could theoretically be cemented. Which means that, as African nations attempt to reclaim their artifacts stolen by North American and European countries, NFTs represent an alluring possibility. Could the 1 percent’s passing fad be used by underdogs for a much larger cause?

“Absolutely,” said Colborn Bell, cofounder of the Museum of Crypto Art (MoCA)—a virtual space he created in April 2020 with former business partner Pablo Rodriguez Fraile. “The blockchain is a perfect record keeper of provenance. The way that the object moves on the blockchain between collectors, that record is indisputable.” Early this year the Presidential Committee on Ghana’s Museums and Cultural Heritage released a wide-ranging report highlighting the different avenues that could make repatriation more efficient. Though the research is in early stages, it did point to blockchain as a possible tool for keeping track of looted items. “Even if an item is moved from one museum to another, the research remains intact,” wrote Afua Nkansah-Asamoah, an activist and curatorial researcher on Ashanti gold at London’s Wallace Collection.

The idea of an online inventory tracking the whereabouts and quantities of objects is not new, but it’s a process that’s been made difficult by the fact that Western museums do not keep detailed records of items such as human remains—about 1,000 African skulls were in Berlin in 2016—and have also been hesitant to make public what they have in storage. The latter point makes the process of creating an inventory and then safeguarding its legitimacy via an NFT difficult. “The biggest problem is how to ensure that the blockchain object really moves with the physical object. And at this stage there are only imperfect solutions to that,” Bell said. That means “if the inventory says a particular artifact is in one museum, if that museum were to ship it off elsewhere, unless it adds that data to the blockchain, the movement will not be recorded, and so the information will be incomplete.” 

Kayvon Tehranian—the founder and CEO of Foundation, which creates space and opportunity for artists to showcase and sell digital art—echoed Bell’s concerns about a break in record-keeping, underscoring that it will be a Herculean feat for museums to adapt NFTS into their cataloging framework. “The way I would think about it is that the museums of the future that are powered by NFTs will not be physical museums—they’ll be digital,” Tehranian said. “I think people misunderstand the medium when they think about physical art. They really need to think about art in the purely digital context in my opinion. If digital art is in a museum, there’s no reason why it can’t be an NFT. What I don’t think will work is trying to create NFTs for physical art. At least not yet.”

On the plus side, innovations in the digital museum space have been spurred along by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most museums around the world have had to offer exhibits via Zoom, at the very least. Bell’s Museum of Crypto Art, which at first glance looks like a Sims installation crossed with an interactive video game, was inspired by a trip he took to the open-air Inhotim museum of contemporary art in Brazil. Bell told me he created MoCA after seeing “a lot of barren land in the virtual space…I wanted people to be able to escape into a world of imagination and wonder in virtual reality. And the museum kind of sat as that first mental model where people could go from the comfort of their homes.” 

Dr. Mike Jones, an archivist and historian who studies how computerization has shifted the way museums collect and showcase archives and collections, told me that most museums have not fully taken advantage of all the ways technology can be integrated into the experience. “When museums first started using computers in the 1960s for things like cataloging systems, it was still very much done for internal use,” he said. “And it was in the 1970s that museums started talking about democratizing their knowledge more effectively.”