01/12/2015 05:57 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

What Is the Authenticity of a Work of Art in the Era of 3D?

Cinema and music piracy on Internet made the columnists bright days while laws and regulations were endlessly issued but often helpless to fight with an economy which was developing. The revolution that is under way in graphic arts is at least as impressive. Tomorrow, every single person shall either own capture-software or 3D printers in order to reproduce the greatest masterpieces of painting and sculpture. The improvement of reproduction goes up to perfection and it is a matter of technological progress, and thus, of time, very little time indeed.

Unless there is a policeman checking every work, the question that arises is the protection of works of art, copyright with regard to the overwhelming technological power of reproduction means. It is also the same matter for artistic fakes and, more generally, for the legitimacy of art world.

The work of art is inherently unique... and, to some extent, even when it is multifarious as in the case with bronze casts. It is the interpretation in its highest expression of the emotion and message of the artist.

Roland Barthes had understood this unquestionably artistic dimension of some works of art that are multifarious such as photography. He describes this striking experience in La Chambre Claire -- Note sur la photographie.

What is wrongly so-called "authenticity" is actually the stamp that the artist or his legal successor appends on the artwork. In fact, to be clear, we should not talk about an authentic work but an authorized work while making a distinction according to the identity of the author of the authorization (either the artist or his legal successor).

Therefore, if it is possible for a sculptor to scan one of his works and send it via a file from New York to Hong Kong in order to edit it on a 3D printer for an exhibition, this work shall be lawful, to use the old terminology, it shall be "authentic." Yet, the artist would not have "touched" the work, he would simply have sent a data file. But is this so different from the bronzes which were manufactured by Rodin, Giacometti or Louise Bourgeois? They made plaster casts from which a mold could be made; the bronzes were produced by the foundry and were licensed by the artist. To go even further, everyone knows that the great painters of the Renaissance, starting with Michel Ange, used to have workshops and a work by Michel Ange is a work on which several hands intervened. Once again, the real matter is to know whether the artist or his right-holder have "authorized" the work.

If tomorrow, however, it shall be possible to reproduce a work so that it is equivalent in appearance to the original, how would it be possible to assign a value to the works and to ensure the protection of the buyers?

Walter Benjamin had addressed in his time this matter about photography and cinema in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

We are not quite yet there. However, all this is a matter of constant reflection and, from a technological point of view, significant initiatives have been undertaken. Google Art Project was launched by Google in collaboration with 17 international museums in 2011 and then, in 2012, a new agreement was signed with 151 museums. This project is designed to offer reproductions of high quality works while using technologies including Google Street View, Picasa and tools that are specifically used for the Art Project. Clauss RODEON VR Head HD and Clauss VR Head ST heads make it possible to make photographs in high resolution with a distinctness which is 1,000 times greater than the accuracy of a digital camera. The most important image, the work by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, The Apparition of Christ to the People, is higher than 12 gigapixels (source: Wikipedia).

Let's suppose that these technologies keep developing and that they become accessible to the public, we can feel that we are not far from the destabilization of a significant market of 47.4 billion dollars in 2013 (1). What would be the meaning of an "original work" tomorrow if the copy is identical to the original and if being provided with an off-the-shelf technical device is sufficient to reproduce the original? Why would the original be more expensive than the copy? How is it possible to insure effectively against fakes?

The right to reproduce, which is different from the ownership on a work, is a French creation born in Revolutionary France. Le Chapelier, who was the rapporteur of the Decree-Law of July 19th, 1793, the first Copyright Act, used to say that: "the ownership of an author on his work is the most sacred, the most legitimate, the most unassailable property." The authors of the law used to talk about a "declaration of the rights of the genius." The French regulation has been regularly strengthened and inspired the rest of the world. In the United States, in his book The Age of Turbulence, Alan Greenspan emphasizes particularly the importance of the protection of intellectual property rights. After all, the West's wealth of today and tomorrow is above all immaterial.

Reaffirming the principles and the sanctity of author's right is certainly essential, but not enough. A model of protection must also be rethought.

For the time being, from a practical standpoint, a work of art of a certain importance is authenticated either by the artist if he is alive or by one or more experts of reference who are renowned by the main players in the market, being specified that the expertise is not a monopoly. It may be an heir, a personality from the academic world, a professional in the world of art etc. No significant sale can therefore be made if a work is not provided with a certificate. Such a situation has moreover given rise to significant disputes since trials have come about either because of the refusal to issue these door-openers, or because of mistakes made in one direction or another. And so much then for a period a time, significant estates of artists ceased for a time to issue certificates to the potential risk that the system seizes up. Today, legislation is changing in the United States and France towards a greater protection of the experts who remain key actors.

Traditionally, the artistic expertise can be viewed from three standpoints: a scientific approach (e.g.: such painting cannot have been made by such a painter because it has anachronistic pigments); a stylistic approach (e.g.: such sculpture cannot be the work of such sculptor who never made marble works before such date); an approach related to the provenance (e.g.: all the works of this painter have been sold by such and such channel and it is unlikely that it can be found in a flea market).

In order to be sold in the international market, a work must therefore be documented. Not only will this rule never change, but it shall expand. The typical illustration is video art, which is the product of these new technological means. A video is not signed, it is indefinitely repeatable. The work is then authenticated by a certificate, and can only be resold with this certificate. It is almost the certificate which "makes" the artwork.

Other elements of authenticity: the traceability and the provenance of the works. Concerning sculpture and multiple works such as bronzes, the reputation and archives of the foundries shall play a major role. It is not an incidental issue: let's recall the sale price -- 65 Million pounds -- for Walking Man by Giacometti in 2010 while it was a multiple (2/6). The fact that a work bears the stamp of a renowned foundry shall guarantee the security for the market.

Of course, it would also be possible to impose industrial standards to reproduction equipment manufacturers, whether for 3D printers or other upcoming technologies, so that reproductions bear the stamp of their origin and may not be mistaken with the originals. There would be processes related to the technology referred to as "designed by." We can bet that this precaution would not be sufficient to prevent danger insofar as temptations are numerous, the market is de-compartmentalized, and the normative coordination perspectives are uncertain.

We can have the feeling that the difference shall be more and more made through the documentation and records.

Today, archives are both on a small-scale (even when computerized) and held by a great many members (families of artists, foundries, galleries, experts etc.). In this regard, it seems conceivable to move technology towards a greater protection and to invent an electronic tagging process for the works (barcodes, electronic chip etc.) and most of all, a kind of international central registry on the model of domain names. It would not be a matter of -- it is illusory -- depriving owners of their archives but creating, the same way it is for governance, an international directory of directories. Consequently, if a person wishes to know if the work (possibly electronically stamped) he is looking at has been made by such an artist, this person would just have to refer to an organization that would give him the references of archives' holders.

The country which would seize such an opportunity shall stay ahead in the art market.

(1) TEFAF Art Market Report 2014, The United States leads with 38 % of market share, China is 2nd with 24 % of market share, The United-Kingdom 3rd with (20 %), France 4th with 6 % of market share.