By Adrián Garelik *
TRUE OR FALSE?
It’s 1975. Several years before his death, Charles Chaplin enters a look-alike contest of himself in France. He probably thinks he is a shoo-in for the prize and everyone will have a hearty laugh at the end. But then, he comes in third. A jury of experts has decided that the real Chaplin is not the best impersonator of Chaplin. The original couldn’t come up with a great copy of himself, hence no one knows he is the real Chaplin. For the eyes of the beholders, Chaplin is not even a good forgery of Chaplin. He was not able to convince the jury he is a true false.
Back in time we move to France, 1911. The most famous painting in art history, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa disappears from its frame in the Louvre Museum. It is a part of a master plan by the so called Count of Valfierno, who convinced a museum’s janitor to steal the painting. Months before the day of the burglary, Valfierno entrusted six copies of the painting to Yves Chaudron, a french art forger. Long story short, right after the news of the theft are spreaded, Valfierno sold the copies to six art collectors around Europe. They thought they had bought the original, until the real Mona Lisa was recouped by the Louvre two years and one hundred days later.
During these two years, the Louvre museum had a record number of visitors, who packed the Salon Carré to watch the empty space Mona Lisa left in the wall.
Would you buy one the replicas made by Yves Chaudron even though it is not the original but just a true false version of the Mona Lisa? I bet you would. Despite the fact it is not the real Mona Lisa, this artwork, one of just six, has become a part of the history of the Mona Lisa. The motivation of art collectors is to own a unique — or semi unique — piece of a story. The owners of the six copies are the owners of six direct links, six unique links to an event in history. Links to a story that deserves to be told. People who visited the Louvre to watch the space in which Mona Lisa once smiled, paid a ticket not to see the actual painting but to witness the story behind the burglary of that painting. Just by being there, standing in front of nothing, they turned into a part of that story. Pity they didn’t keep a proof to show off their link with Valfierno, with Mona Lisa. With Da Vinci.
1985. One of the most expensive bottles of wine ever, a 1787 Château Lafite, is sold in an auction. It was proven that the bottle was once a part of the collection of Thomas Jefferson. Even though the contents of the bottle — the wine itself — is totally spoiled, a collector is keen on paying $160,000 to be linked to one of the founding fathers of the United States.
The collector pays to own a piece of history, a proof of a link to a story of which he has just become a part of as well. If he ever sells the bottle, he would still remain a link in the chain that connects all the characters in this story.
It is not just a matter of who the artist is, it is a matter of which story lies behind an object. This story, regardless of the artist that created the art, has links to other characters, who have lived other stories. The actual work of art, besides of its aesthetic value, turns itself into a proof, an irrefutable certificate of a link to a story of which its owner became a part of. To have a Rothko hanging in your living room, to buy a wheel of the car in which James Dean died, to own a guitar that once belonged to Jim Morrison or the t-shirt that Maradona wore when Argentina won the ’86 World Cup has the same value: to prove you have a unique link — therefore you’re linked — with a particular story.
The scarcer this object-certificate is, the more valuable it turns. A brick from the Berlin wall, which is one among thousands, links to a story… but many other bricks are linked as well, and there is no record to prove you were a part of that story once the brick is no longer owned by you.
In short, value on top of a piece of art or an object is given by how scarce it is and how many links on its history chain can be tied to significant stories or significant characters. To own — or to have owned if there are means to prove it — is a symbol of being a part of.
Blockchain is the perfect tool to prove ownership of a digital asset and to track its provenance. Before blockchain, with the internet of information, every time you sent a digital asset to another person, you sent a copy of such asset (e.g. sending an image through eMail left a copy of that image in your computer) Blockchain allowed the development of the internet of value. A network of decentralized and distributed computers share a copy of a digital ledger — the same ledger — and it is only allowed to add new pages to this ledger, making it impossible to modify information that has already been settled in the blockchain.
Bitcoin was the first use of blockchain technology. The moment in which a bitcoin was coined and deposited in a first address is settled in one page of the ledger. The consecutive pages of the ledger show certain amounts of bitcoins that have moved from one address to other addresses. Even though all the pages of the ledger are public, addresses are pseudonyms. This means that you can keep your address anonymous or tell the universe you’re the owner of that address — and the bitcoins that address holds.
But Bitcoin is not the perfect instrument for representing digital ownership of a unique asset, basically because owning one bitcoin is not different from owning another bitcoin, and once a satoshi — 0,00000001 bitcoin — is deposited in your address, it mixes with the rest of your balance. Furthermore, a bitcoin can be divisible in millions of small fractions and there’s no way of setting rules to the transfer of a bitcoin. That’s why a new standard has been developed: Non Fungible Tokens.
A Non Fungible Token — yes, an NFT — is basically a unique token that represents something unique. Its genesis — we call it Minting — is recorded in a blockchain, and the NFT is deposited in a first address — usually owned by the minter of the NFT — . Every subsequent transfer of ownership is settled in the consecutive pages. When and whom owned or transferred an NFT is public information, as well as the price of the operation if it was completely done using cryptocurrency. An NFT can have a little bit of information attached to it, such as links or hashes — a cryptographic string that represents the fingerprint of a digital asset that is stored outside the token or the blockchain.
NFTs can also have rules. As an example, creators of NFTs could earn a percentage of every transaction done to transfer the ownership of the artwork, and not only the first one as it happens in the real world.
NFTs not only prove that you have participated in a story, they are also a transparent tool that has the ability to tell all the sides of such a story. Not a single chapter or detail can be disposed nor avoided. If this piece of art once belonged and was stolen from a jewish family that had been deported to a concentration camp, that part of the story will not be obfuscated. The whole story will be told always and forever. NFT magic.
Besides all this technical and conceptual mess that could not be so easy to assimilate at first, an NFT is a digital proof of ownership. And it is the most effective tool developed so far on that matter.
It is, potentially, the end of true falses.
*Adrián Garelik is the CEO of Flixxo, partner of Paisanos.io and one of the co-founders of RSK Labs (aka IOV Labs) In the last months he directed a joint venture between the three companies to develop Kahlo, the first marketplace for NFTs built on top of the Bitcoin ecosystem.