Christies and Blockchain

Christie’s is a world famous British auction house. It was founded by James Christie in 1766. Its main offices are on King Street, St, James’s in London and also in the Rockefeller Center in New York City. The company is owned by by Groupe Artémis, the holding company of François-Henri Pinault. In 2015 sales totalled $7.4 billion US dollars and in 2017 it sold the Salvator Mundi, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci for $450.3 million. The highest price ever paid for a single painting at an auction.

On the 11th of October Christie’s announced that their world leading art business would be piloting an encrypted registration of art transactions on a blockchain. It was part of a unique collaboration with Artory a leading independent digital registry for the art market.

For the first time each piece of artwork from An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection sold at Christie’s now comes with a secure, encrypted certificate of sale for the successful bidder, creating a permanent digital record of all relevant information about the artwork.

Their announcement was timed to coincide with Christie’s upcoming West Coast tour of artwork from the Barney A. Ebsworth Collection which is considered to be the most important privately held collection of 20th Century American art. It has an estimated value in excess of $300 million US dollars.

The centerpiece of the collection was Edward Hopper’s, Chop Suey (pictured) and the tour displayed 13 paintings from a collection of more than 90 works from Los Angeles to San Francisco for public exhibitions. The featured paintings in this exhibition included some rarely seen works by the most influential American artists of the modern era such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Sheeler.  

A press release from Christies stated: “The introduction of a blockchain encryption component to the collection sale reflects Barney Ebsworth’s own commitment to innovation in business, and his embrace of technology as a powerful tool to advance efficiency and improve the client experience. During his lifetime, Mr. Ebsworth was founder of the Clipper Cruise Line, the luxury travel provider Intrav, and later became a venture capital and real estate investor. Of his own career as a business entrepreneur, Mr. Ebsworth said ‘my tendency to stay ahead of the curve and reinvent the business as needed’ is one of the primary qualities that made him successful in business.”

Richard Entrup, Chief Information Officer at Christie’s commented: “Our pilot collaboration with Artory is a first among the major global auction houses, and reflects growing interest within our industry to explore the benefits of secure digital registry via blockchain technology. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Ebsworth family and their embrace of leading-edge technology makes Christie’s November sale of the Ebsworth Collection an ideal platform for our clients to experience this technology for themselves and to explore the advantages of having a secure encrypted record of information about their purchased artwork.”

The blockchain based system works by registering significant events that have taken place over the lifecycle of the piece of art. This could be anything from being displayed in a public exhibition to being sold at auction. Artory and Christie’s will collaborate to securely record all public information about the sale in each lot in the Ebsworth collection. This will include the title, a description, the final sale price and date. Artory will produce a digital certificate of the transaction for Christies. After the auction has ended Christie’s will provide each buyer a registration card to access a secure and encrypted record of the information about their purchased artwork on the Artory registry.

The buyer retains control over their personal information throughout the transaction process and no personal information is recorded on Artory’s registry nor on the blockchain.

Nanne Dekking, CEO of Artory, commented: “We are delighted to work with Christie’s on this industry-leading collaboration. As long-standing participants and business leaders within the global art market, the Artory team innately understands the needs of today’s art collectors and the broader desire within the industry to embrace new technologies that will help the marketplace evolve. This November, Artory is pleased to work with Christie’s and the Ebsworth family to mark the start of a blockchain digital journey for each work in this spectacular collection, and to show the art world how digital encryption technology can benefit buyers and collectors in the future.”

In San Francisco, Christie’s revealed two paintings with storied provenance: Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape, previously owned by comedian and collector Steve Martin (estimate in the region of $60 million); and Franz Kline’s, Painting from 1954, once owned by the American artist Joan Mitchell (estimate: $5-7 million). Mitchell’s own 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, (estimate: $12-16 million), a near 10-foot tall tour-de-force painted in 1960, were among the highlights of the Ebsworth Collection.  The full Collection was unveiled to the public in an extended exhibition from November 4 -13 at Christie’s galleries in Rockefeller Center, New York.

Their press release also stated: “This pilot continues a long Christie’s legacy of leading the industry by introducing technology innovations in the context of major collections, for the ultimate benefit of our clients. Over the years, new technological enhancements have included online bidding in live auctions, live streaming, e-commerce auctions, mobile bidding registration, augmented reality apps, and more. Christie’s pioneered online-only e-commerce auctions with The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor in 2011 and multi-platform, multi-year collection sales (live auction, online, and private sales) with Andy Warhol@Christie’s, sold to benefit the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.”

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