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Technology continues to change the face of the art industry

Written on 21st Nov 2013, by Andrew Gilbert

The online art market is already estimated to be growing by 20% each year and more art pieces already exchange hands online than in galleries. It appears the importance of a physical gallery, in terms of trading, is diminishing. But could this trend to digital sales potentially impact the way art is authenticated and tracked?

Insurance firm, Hiscox, report that about 90% of galleries are regularly selling art to clients on the basis of the digital image alone. This shouldn’t really be that surprising given the proliferation of online retailing, and this merely demonstrates that the art sector is simply embracing practices that have become the norm in recent years in more mainstream retail markets.

But as ecommerce makes art more accessible to new audiences, increasing the amount of pieces being bought online, so there is potentially an increasing risk that uninformed consumers could become victims of counterfeiting. Especially as the spread of online retail in other markets has meant that people are willing to put more faith in the authenticity of online sources when making purchases.

Trusting your sources

Art galleries selling pieces of art online isn’t the problem at all. When buying from a trusted source, consumers know that the piece they are buying will be as it appears online (probably better) and a genuine, authenticated piece of artwork that they can enjoy as a product and an asset.

However, the fragmentation of the online marketplace we have seen in other industries is something that should be taken seriously by everyone in the art world.

To take the example of the luxury goods sector, criminals have been able to take advantage of online sales channels to profit from outright counterfeit products. As the customer will have bought these items on the basis of a picture and a product name, there is no way of telling if it is counterfeit until the product arrives in the post, if it turns up at all.

Online channels have also created opportunities for criminals to profit from diversion, where genuine products are sold illegitimately for knock-down prices – meaning that brands aren’t making a return on them, and the exclusivity of the buying experience is undermined, damaging the integrity of brands.

The increasing trust in digital images for high-value products such as art is a concern for these reasons. When will people start becoming too trusting of websites claiming to be art galleries and distributors, and begin inadvertently buying fake, or fraudulently sourced, products?

No way of knowing

Another pertinent issue is that fine art is notoriously difficult and time-consuming to authenticate. I’m not suggesting for one minute that a collector would buy a painting for millions of pounds online without having it authenticated – that isn’t really the issue.

However, art for the masses still needs to be authenticated and tracked – and that’s extremely difficult to do. Adding overt security measures such as holograms or barcodes to a piece of art can decrease its long-term value. So, the only true way of authenticating a piece of art is for it to be approved by an expert. That’s not a scalable model if art is going to become more accessible.

Ideally, authentication and tracking measures need to be covert so they do not add anything physical to the artwork and should be added as soon as it’s produced. This is a model that could easily be applied by the ever growing and increasingly popular school of modern living artists.

Modern anti-counterfeiting technologies can do this by forming a digital fingerprint of a product’s surface, which can be coded in a database – this allows each individual piece to be authenticated, tracked and later verified.

Using these technologies art galleries, or even individual artists themselves, can simply scan paintings to authenticate them, and more importantly, track individual pieces to ensure they are where they should be and not falling into the wrong hands.