Robert Norton needs little introduction to the art world. Now based in L.A., Mr. Norton originally comes from London, before moving to the American city. Beginning as a media executive, Mr. Norton became CEO and co-founder of Sedition Art and Saatchi Online. Most recently, he started Verisart, the first platform to certify and verify both digital and physical artworks using blockchain technology.
Why did you move to LA from London and what was your initial experience?
Well, it was a question of sunshine primarily. I think a lot of people are inspired to come to Los Angeles because they want a change of surroundings, and create their own ideas and notions of what California means to them. I mean, California itself is a fictional term right, a reference to a mythical land described in a popular 16th century novel, so in a way it’s truly a place of folklore and people today still relate to this idea of going to a newly formed and imagined land. The allure of sunshine, warm weather and Hollywood continues to draw a lot of people here.
Famously David Hockney came out here in the 60s to escape the London fog and its dreary greyness in search of brighter light and you can’t underestimate the power of sunshine as a calling to California. But besides the change of scenery, California is just one of the most fascinating and most thought provoking parts of the world to live.
What are some of the current factors that are influencing LA’s art market?
At present there are number of things at play in terms of a more effective art climate. First you’ve got a modern day Medici figure in the form of Eli Broad who is single handedly pumping in a billion-plus into the LA art world. Not only did he launch his own museum, The Broad, but he also presided over the launch of MOCA and the expansion of LACMA. Secondly you’ve got these great, world-class museum directors with people like Ann Philbin at the Hammer and Michael Govan at LACMA and they’re putting together some of the most exciting curatorial programs you’ll find anywhere in the world. Earlier this year, we saw a landmark Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which was a joint show between LACMA and the Getty, and a great example of these world-class institutions working together. And finally, you’ve got a bunch of young agitators trying to shake up things in the art world. All these initiatives are positive and we’re seeing a growing and increasingly confident collector base as a result.
It sounds like there’s a formula for a great new upcoming art scene?
Yeah, I think it’s flourishing. However, it’s still small compared to other art capitals but then you have to take into account that LA, as a city, is relatively young compared to those capitals. It’s rare to find 3 generations of people that are born and bred in LA, and you can of course find that very easily in London and quite easily in New York. So this really is a place synonymous with the new, and as contemporary art is all about the new, it’s natural art is an integral part of the city’s forward-facing narrative.
With California as a whole regarded as the most forward thinking state, you could ask yourself why it took so long for the art world to get here? But it’s really not that new. People like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger have long shown the world how fertile a ground LA is for artists. What’s more with an ever-expanding downtown LA art scene and some of the best art schools in the country like ArtCenter in Pasadena, CalArts, UCLA and Otis, my bet is the art scene will just grow richer and more widespread moving forward.
A big critique of the art world has always been a lack of transparency, and that transactions often happen behind closed doors. How does Verisart and its bitcoin and blockchain system work to change and improve this?
Verisart is a new company at the intersection of art and technology, with the primary aim of building trust and liquidity in the art market. The art market is bedevilled by fraudulent activity, and what is exceptional to the art market is that fraudulent activity is not theft as in other markets but almost entirely forgery. So you have this $60-70 billion annual global art market, of which according to conservative estimates, 10% is forgery and more aggressive estimates claim this could be as high as 25%.
This breeds an atmosphere of mistrust and widespread level of malpractice. You can see evidence of this in recent high-profile cases like Sotheby’s having to refund a client after selling a fake Frans Hals, or the Knoedler gallery, with its trusted reputation built over 150 years, was found to be selling fake Rothko’s to, among others, the chairman of Sotheby’s himself. So it’s a serious and real failure in the system to allow so many fake works, either knowingly or unknowingly, to enter the market at the highest levels and to change hands among the most trusted and knowledgeable people in the system.
At Verisart, we believe there has to be a better way to handle the documentation of an object. Since an artwork’s value, over time, is inextricably linked to its certification, accepted provenance and confidence in the registry holding the information is in the interest of the artist, dealer and collector to ensure these records are tamper-proof. Up till now the problem has been that very few people are willing to divulge this information on a fully transparent basis as it's in people’s interest to keep the information private.
The blockchain solves the problem of protecting anonymity between people while providing trusted record keeping. As a new Internet protocol it combines shared cryptographic standards and a decentralised ledger which has particular relevance to the certification and verification of artworks. It allows parties on either end to remain completely opaque but to share information they desire. Since it’s secure enough to run a payment application like the virtual currency Bitcoin, it is easily able to handle the requirements for trusted art certification.
Verisart enables the real-time verification of provenance and gives artists free tools to create certificates of authenticity that can no longer be tampered or messed with. So if you’re buying an artwork from Shepard Fairey for example - who is one of the first artists we’re working with as well as one of our investors and a leading figure in the LA art scene – the artwork now carries a certificate of authenticity powered by Verisart and cryptographically permanently recorded on the blockchain.
Now for the first time you have the ability for everybody to agree, without doubt, that something happened at an agreed moment in time. That means any claims of authorship after that time will be automatically challenged by the fact a previous claim exists, and if that previous claim was made by the artist himself, then he or she has effectively protected their future market from fraudulent activity. With advances in image recognition, its now very easy to take a picture with your phone and check a record. So if someone tries to place a fake work in the art market, anyone will know the work has no credence. As new standards of certification go hand in hand with the exchange of art, the impact to the art market will be tremendous as history shows the growth of markets accelerates with increased trust and liquidity.