Jan 14, 2023 - Economy

How Alitheon's authentication technology is transforming collectibles

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

I met Alitheon's CEO, Roei Ganzarski, on the sidelines of Art Basel Miami Beach last month. He was there for obvious reasons: His company's technology can easily determine within seconds whether any given artwork is genuine or fake — if it's adopted by the artist or gallerist.

Why it matters: I've lost track of the number of companies trying to put art on the blockchain in one form or another; most of them have little if any technological innovation. This, however, is clearly a vast improvement on how the art world has been able to operate until now.

An example: Let's say an artist puts their work online, where anybody can download and print it. Most NFTs work that way; Cory Arcangel does something similar when he makes the titles of his works the instructions that anybody can use to replicate them.

  • Those works can still be printed and sold by the artist's gallery, in an officially-authorized edition. Normally, a collector buying one of those works would receive a paper certificate of authenticity to prove that it was genuine and not a copy.
  • A much simpler and more accurate solution is for the gallery to take a high-res photograph of each authorized print. Then all a collector or authenticator needs to do is take a photo of a print, and they will be reassured that it's genuine, along with information such as when it was printed and what number it is in the edition.

Between the lines: Digital authentication is easy to apply to any paintings, including pre-digital objects. Let's say a collector wants to lend a work to a museum; a photograph can then suffice to ensure that the piece they get back is the same one that they lent out.

  • In principle, it can even prevent shenanigans by galleries themselves, like the time a gallery sold Alec Baldwin a later copy of a Ross Bleckner painting rather than the contracted-for original.

The big picture: Celebrity-adjacent collectibles are a booming business. Paul Newman's Rolex, for instance, sold for $18 million in 2017.

  • Celebrity provenance, however, has been very difficult to prove — until now. With this technology, a celebrity or influencer can wear some item, take a photograph of themselves wearing it, and attach that photo to the database entry for that item.
  • Something as simple as "the T-shirt this pop star wore on stage for a certain gig" can be authenticated and turned into a high-value collectible. Any attempt to swap it out for a seemingly identical T-shirt would be foiled easily.

Testing it out

Over breakfast in Miami, Ganzarski asked whether I had any identical things on me, like business cards. As it happened, I had half a dozen seemingly-identical Forever Stamps in my bag.

Why it matters: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So Ganzarski photographed four of the six stamps, and gave each one a number.

  • We took one of the other two stamps, photographed it, and the app marked it as not genuine.
  • Then we took one of the original four stamps, scribbled all over it until it was unrecognizable from how it looked originally, photographed it — and the app immediately identified which stamp it was.

The big picture: Doing this with stamps is not easy — but doing it with polished gold bars is much, much harder. So I called up Robin Kolvenbach, the CEO of Swiss precious-metals company Argor-Heraeus, one of Alitheon's customers.

How it works: Kolvenbach needed a technology that would allow customers to photograph a gold bar and be reassured that it came from reputable sources.

  • "Traceability is one of the principal objectives in the value chain," he explained. "It’s very important these days to know exactly where your gold is coming from" — that it's 100% recycled, say, or only comes from mines in Canada.
  • Kolvenbach walked me through how he tested the technology — by photographing bars and then scratching them, beating them up with hammers, cutting them in half, and more.
  • The verdict: Although minted gold bars have a very smooth and shiny surface and all look identical to the naked eye, the software could easily tell them apart, even after they were severely damaged.

Kolvenbach, who got his doctorate in surface chemistry, was not surprised this was technologically possible — although he was surprised that the camera on an iPhone was good enough to perceive such differences.

  • After extensive testing, Kolvenbach said, he never saw a false positive, which means that fakes are always detected as such.

Where it's headed

As billions of people start carrying around high-resolution cameras in their pockets, this kind of technology is only going to spread. For the time being, however, it's mostly a business-to-business industry, with customers including private companies, public companies, and even governments.

Why it matters: We're in the very early days; Alitheon's sales grew fivefold last year.

  • Within about a year, says Ganzarski, consumers (as opposed to business customers) will be able to start authenticating objects with their phones. In two to three years, they will be able to create their own registered items within public databases.

What's next: Alitheon is far from the only company in this space. Assuming the technology lives up to its potential, other players will arrive that haven't even been founded yet, even as tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon also get into the game.

Read more: Using iPhones to detect fakes

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