Employees at Arius Technology preparing to scan an artwork (all images courtesy Arius Technology unless otherwise noted)

The art market’s never-ending arms race to technologize its provenance procedures has taken a turn toward analytics once used to uncover hidden secrets about the Mona Lisa.

Last fall, the auction house Christie’s began a pilot project with blockchain registry company Artory, saying that its registry would offer a “secure digital record of transactions, with a goal of providing greater confidence in an artwork’s ongoing provenance and greater efficiency in its eventual resale.”

Arius Technology, a Vancouver-based business specializing in high-resolution 3D scans of museum paintings, announced last week that it would partner with Artory to strengthen the registry and improve marketplace transparency by adding its scanned paintings data to the blockchain.

In a statement on the company’s newest collaboration, Artory CEO Nanne Dekking said, “The techniques Arius have developed for collecting data provides us with the highest level of accuracy for the physical condition of artworks. Making the record of data they create public, also helps validate and strengthen the trust that the credible market players already have.”

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa,” c. 1503-16. Oil on poplar panel, 77 × 53 cm (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The technological foundations of Arius began with an experiment on the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre conducted by the National Research Council of Canada. For conservation reasons, scientists wanted to forensically analyze the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece’s rate of degradation and warping patterns. One researcher suggested 3D-scanning the painting. Through this invention, scientists could not only accomplish their conservation goals, but they were also able to confirm Leonardo’s style down to the brushstroke, uncovering some interesting elements of his painting unseen by the human eye.

After acquiring this technology from the Canadian government, Arius spent a number of years commercializing its approach. The company refined its scanning capabilities with additional museum projects, including one with the National Gallery of Canada in 2016 to assist conservationists on Claude Monet’s “Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet on the Bank of the Epte” (c. 1887–1890).

Claude Monet, “Jean-Pierre Hoschedé and Michel Monet on the Bank of the Epte” (c. 1887–1890) (image via wikimedia commons)

That project was particularly important for the company, according to Arius CEO Paul Lindahl. “In the process of analyzing data, we noticed a bunch of irregularities. We thought our scanner was having a bad day, but the conservation scientist informed us that it was just the painting’s surface,” he explained to Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “What we detected were rough spots on the painting. Monet was using pigments that had a metal in them that was oxidizing, creating spots.”

What followed were more museum projects, including a 2017 partnership with the Tate in the United Kingdom. Through these experiences, Lindahl realized that the art market often lacked the wealth of knowledge intimately studied by museum professionals. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the condition of a painting is before you acquire it?” he asked.

Of course, museums and auction houses already conduct their own due diligence when handling questions of provenance and conservation — especially for older, more expensive paintings. They have a variety of options at their disposal, including infrared spectroscopy, x-ray scanning, chemical analysis, and wood identification.

“We see 3D scanning as a supplement to these tools; it’s another type of information,” says Lindahl. “We measure two things, geometric surface and color.”

Arius is funded with money from the Canadian government and private investors, many of whom “are passionate about art,” Lindahl said.

An employee examining a scan

Unlike other methods of analysis, 3D scanning excels at tracking the subtlest of changes across a canvas; it can measure differences as small as 10 microns, or a tenth the width of a human hair. That information may become vital for the future prevention of art forgeries.

Reciprocally, there is a fear that the 3D scanning technologies Arius advances could corrupt the art market by reinvigorating the sale of high-end copies. Even the company’s online store announces the end to originality, proclaiming that “reproduction has become re-creation.” There, shoppers can purchase faithful facsimiles of paintings from the National Gallery of Canada and Mauritshuis for anywhere between $350 and $1,900.

Moreover, there is a concern about false positives when using such advanced technology to investigate questions of provenance. Experts worry that a system like a blockchain might corrupt historical records permanently if false information were added to its ledger. (Once something is added to a blockchain, it is impossible to scrub from the dataset.) If mismanaged, the registry would allow forgeries or misattributed paintings to stay in the market for years to come.

But Lindahl sees the blockchain’s permanence and openness as its greatest assets. “Because you can’t change data, people will be able to see any possible contradictions. What I like about Artory is that the data is going to be scrubbed and verified before it goes into the registry,” he said. “The industry is trying to put a system in place that is better than the one we have today by using technology. People are always going to try and take advantage of it. If you look at blockchain and verified registries, the worst-case scenario is that you have contradicting data. That’s going to be flagged and bring extra analysis.”

What will become of 3D scanning technology outside of the art market? Lindahl has plans for Arius scanning systems to be installed in secure storage facilities, like Freeport Luxembourg where many wealthy art collectors stash their troves of paintings. Clientele would be able to remotely request handlers put their artworks into the system for analysis.

Additionally, Lindahl intends to launch a creative platform for artists using the technology. “Artists are still using lithographs,” he noted. “We would scan [works] for an artist to go in digitally and make alterations. We can freeze that data and make limited editions while maintaining style and texture.”

“I’m a technologist,” he added. “The number of opportunities for the arts industry to exploit with  new technology is endless.”

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...