on Amalyah Keshet, Senior Consultant from Naomi Korn Associates presentation “NFTS and Museums” at UKRG event 11 Feb 2022 at Museum of Brands (presentation online) 

I have been hearing a lot about NFTs in the press and have quietly been referring to them as NFCs in my head (for “Not a flippin’ clue”). Thanks to the brilliant talk I attended at February’s UKRG meeting, I now have a tighter grip on just what the latest craze in trading is and why it’s taking over the art world. 

Amalyah Keshet, Senior Consultant from Naomi Korn Associates gave a thorough and clear talk on NFTs; giving us an overview of what we know to date and what the risks of these new traceable assets might be for museums, particularly pertaining to copyright. 

If you didn’t attend, then maybe you’re still at NFC stage so let me first give you some helpful terminology. To get non-fungible we start with fungible which means money, or more specifically currency, which can be exchanged for goods or services. Non-fungible therefore is anything unique which can be bought or sold. A fiver is fungible, a pot plant is non-fungible. 

T is for token!  

And this is where it maybe gets a bit more complex if, like me, your mum used to cut tokens out of the Sun to take you on holiday to Butlins every year. That’s not why a token is in 2022 friends. It’s a ‘unique digital signature that is somehow linked to an original work’, ie a long string of letters and numbers, known to those in the know as ‘metadata’. And here dear reader, we encounter our first major risk to be aware of. If you are the purchaser of an NFT to are buying this unique set of metadata, not the original work to which it is linked. The link may be included in the NFT, but the end point, or thing it links to could be changed. ie you buy an NFT that links to a lovely digital image of a Van Gogh, but if someone changes what the link links to, you could end up with an NFT that stands for something quite different. The best way to think of NFTs is like crypto currency (bitcoin). Strings of data that sit on a block chain that can be sold on for a profit. 

In the museum world there are other ways of thinking of NFTs too. The British Museum recently tested selling NFTs as a commercial activity around their Hokusai exhibition, and in this sense, Keshet told us, they should be thought of in the same way as we might set up a licence agreement. For example, in the British Museum’s case they worked with LaCollection, a company which licences a digital image to create a limited edition of NFTs which clients can purchase and the museum takes a cut of the profit. Indeed, it was the BM’s head of licencing Craig Bendle who managed the sale of these ‘digital postcards’. And therein lies another red flag to museums. Although they are seemingly cheap to make and can sell for high prices, the cost of creating these digital assets and managing the sale of them requires huge amounts of staff time which may not make them a viable or reliable source of income generation. For example, the art NFT market has already slipped behind the non-art NFTs. 

Copyright was the theme of the day for this UKRG event and it is also a concern for artists generating NFT artwork. Overall, Keshet warned that it isn’t secure as works can easily be plagiarised, moved to different platforms or linked to different data. Proving authenticity is difficult in crypto land, when the NFT is ‘minted’ or authenticated by those who hold the platforms they sit on. Counterfeits and replicas can easily be created and copyright holders may not always be aware of works being transferred making this difficult to police. An agreement in writing would be required to transfer copyright, alongside the sale of the NFT. 

Seeing as one needs a ‘crypto wallet’ to hold bitcoin, one also needs the equivalent to hold an art NFT. So will we start seeing NFTs as acquisitions, and what might this mean for collections managers and registrars? Well, firstly, it is important to remember that these are currency or assets and that any acquisition would need to comply with your organisations acquisitions policy and not be in breach of any governance or charitable functions. At the moment, it seems that these digital assets are remaining in metaverse museum displays, such as The NFT Museum Collection which is an invitation-only online exhibition (those interested can request and invite and see more details on the Republic Realm website). However, we are starting to see a metaverse to universe crossover, as CryptoPunk #5293, one of 10,000 unique 24-by-24-pixel icons created in 2017 by Larva Labs, was recently gifted to Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Their press release states, ‘Gifted by ICA Miami Trustee Eduardo Burillo, CryptoPunk 5293 will be on view at ICA Miami this summer, reflecting the museum’s commitment to advancing a wide understanding of contemporary art and fostering experimentation.’ But gives no indication of how this will be held in their collection in perpetuity, showing that although NFTs have been around since 2014, they still pose more questions than answers for the physical museum world and should be treated with caution.  

It is all very new and we don’t know what the future holds so this is definitely something to watch. Huge thanks to UKRG and to Amalyah Keshet for helping us keep ahead of the curve on this one. 

Is your museum selling or acquiring NFTs? Please do get in touch and let me know, as I’d be keen to hear more! 

[email protected] 

Sarah Hardy is the Director of the De Morgan Museum and Collection, based at Cannon Hall in Barnsley