AABC x Wake Forest University

Three Scenarios for Fall 2020/Spring 2021

in conjunction with

Wake Law, Wake Anthropology, Wake Computer Science, Wake Art History



Scenario 1: The  Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University has a group of archeological objects in their collection that were looted from Mexico. Upon realizing these objects were acquired unethically, the museum contacted the Mexican government in an effort to repatriate the objects and open a dialog. The history of the objects was acknowledged by the governmental representative; however, they did not wish to repatriate the objects due to the burden of storage and conservation.


In this scenario, blockchain technology would be used to assign revenue rights to the Mexican government - ideally for the benefit of the community from which the objects originated - while the museum maintains physical stewardship. The local Mexican community benefits from any resulting profit related to exhibition, merchandising and publication in which the works were represented, while the museum continues to serve as steward of the objects.


To consider:



Scenario 2:   The descendants of Captain James Cook have inherited an oil dish lamp (O 1978.E.87) that Cook collected during his voyages in the late 18th Century. Cook’s descendants would prefer to sell the object at an auction house or donate it to a museum rather than keep it in the family. There is no record of the way in which the artefact was acquired from Fiji and thus, the lamp could be subject to repatriation.


Cook’s descendants approach an American museum about donating the object, which would result in a tax deduction for the family. The museum is concerned about accepting a donation that lacks clear provenance and fears repatriation litigation; they do not accept the donation. The family attempts to consign the work at Christie’s auction house, but the African/Oceanic Arts department will not accept it without proven provenance. The family is left with the now ‘orphaned’ object and no options for its future circulation. The market for the object has now halted and it cannot be circulated.


The ideal outcome would be for the object to be sold at a public auction.

To consider:

Scenario 3: The Bura culture was first discovered in 1975 to the northwest of Niamey, the capital of the state of Niger, and in neighboring Burkina Faso. Between the third and tenth centuries, the dead were laid to rest at a site in present-day Niger downstream from the Inland Niger delta. The burial ground’s density and expanse suggest a veritable city of the departed. Several hundred individual graves were marked by upturned pottery urns, some of which were cylinders topped by figurative imagery.

In 2018, Dr. David and Karina Riling, collectors of African and Oceanic artifacts, gifted objects to the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University that originated from the Bura-Asinda-Sikka culture which was in the present-day Southwest Niger. In 1960, Niger became an independent country from France.

One of the objects in the collection is a funerary urn-reliquary dating from approximately the 10th century (MOA Collection No. 2019.07.A.03).

The current government of Niger has contacted the MOA to discuss the possible return of this object. The conversation will center around new models of fractional ownership that would honor the origin of the object and provide financial support to the National Museum of Niger (Musée National Boubou Hama). http://www.museenationalduniger.ne

The MOA would like to continue displaying the object for educational purposes, lending it to appropriate institutions and creating a shared revenue stream.


To consider:



Blockchain Decision Path


1.        Need for a shared common database?


Overview: This question is more macro in nature and applies to all stakeholders within the cultural heritage market and ecosystem. The potential lies in the ability for a shared common database among museums, institutions, collectors, scholars, governments, private collectors, auction houses, and the legal community. A shared title registry that shows full cataloguing information, accurate provenance, transaction history, and price history, is needed among all stakeholders who are trading, owning or exhibiting objects of cultural heritage. It would also provide the ability to fractionalize ownership collectively among stakeholders, instead of one “owner,” and for shared revenue. The possibility of changing a zero-sum game to another model is the potential.


Scenario1: Stakeholders are the Wake Forest Museum, the University, Mexican government, source community(s). If everyone is a stakeholder, everyone should be able to access the information that is updated automatically across the system. This would be a pre-requisite of the revenue sharing structure and support a potential ‘impact investing’ framework. (For example: once these objects were being traded within one system, members of the NC community could invest in a token and have a foundation/sponsor match their investment.


Scenario 2: If the country of origin agrees that the object should be in the collection of an American museum or could be sold at auction, because they’re going to be financial and title participants, the Cook family gets can move forward. Fiji agrees they won’t make a claim on the object, which makes it possible to be donated to a museum or for Christie’s to sell. Fiji will agree to this, because they will be able to participate in the future of the revenue and ownership (via a mandatory percentage of the sale proceeds, for instance). Fiji government interested in the social impact investment to allow for other related scenarios to take place. Would a system of compensatory objects that are tokenized be achievable?


Scenario 3: Government of Niger contacts MOA to discuss possible return of object. The MOA desires to continue displaying the object for educational purposes, lending it to appropriate institutions and creating shared revenue streams.

2.        Multiple parties involved?


Scenario1: Yes. Stakeholders include the Wake Forest Museum, the Wake Forest administration, the public they serve, the Mexican government, the Indigenous Mexican community

Scenario 2: Yes. Stakeholders include the descendants of Captain Cook, museum of choice, IRS, Christie’s, potential buyer

Scenario 3: Yes. Stakeholders include the Donors, the Wake Forest Museum, the public they serve, the Niger government and museum.


3.        Parties involved having conflicting interests and/or are not trusted?


Overview: The work of provenance research and title understanding was significantly changed by the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. “1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property establishes a legal framework within which governments can have the opportunity to co-operate to fight the illicit trade in cultural property. Cultural property is broadly defined, and as well as works of art it includes mineral and paleontological specimens as well as antiquities, objects of ethnographic interest and elements of historic buildings and monuments which have been dismembered. The convention makes provision for a state party to request the return of an object stolen within its own jurisdiction but located within the jurisdiction of another. It also makes provision for a state party to request another to impose import restrictions on specific classes of material. There are also recommendations for education and training.” Neil Brody, Jenny Dood, Peter Watson, The Illicit Tarde in Cultural Material, 2000.


The implementation of the UNESCO convention and other related conventions changed the ethical responsibility placed on private collectors as well as museums.


Scenario 1: The parties have conflicting interests. The museum wants to return objects that were unethically acquired and the Mexican government does not wish to pay for their maintenance and therefore does not want to take them back.


Scenario 2: The parties are aligned in their interest to sell the object, but neither information source is trusted within the cultural heritage ecosystem. Neither party can be fully trusted because there is 1) no proof of how Cook acquired the object and 2) there was very little, if any, provenance listed in auction catalogues before 2000. In other words, auction catalogues rarely included details about where and how artworks were acquired initially. While provenance is now very seriously researched in major auction houses, there is still no central, cumulative, transparent source of sales. Each auction house publishes their records separately, and only the sales - not the works that go unsold.


Scenario 3: The parties have potentially conflicting interests. The source government would like the piece returned, while the museum would prefer to retain stewardship and explore other mutually beneficial options.


4.        Need for an objective, immutable log?


The answers to #3 provide insight into why this answer is ‘yes.’ One accurate, transparent, and, immutable log would provide clarity on acquisition and ownership history. This increased transparency would result in increased trust - and the ability to transact - within a system that is currently frozen.


5.        Rules governing participants are not uniform?


Scenario1: Governing participants include the Mexican government, American government, the state government of North Carolina, and administration within Wake Forest University.

Scenario 2: Governing participants include the Cook family; a museum that is governed by federal and local governments, plus their Board; the source nation’s government and religious institution; the auction house department and legal team.

Scenario 3: Governing participants include the United States of America, the state government of North Carolina, and the Niger government.

6.        Rules of transactions do not change frequently.


Yes, the transactions are straightforward. These objects are sold, bought, loaned, donated, exhibited.


7.        Are transactions public?


Yes and no. Auction house transactions are public, gallery transactions are private. This question of private vs. public can be the next step in our exploration. The question of ‘who controls who is given a node’ should be the next step in our exploration.





Decisions will be made by people, but those decisions will then be automatically executed, and all the interactions that will flow from those decisions will be dispatched through a blockchain-based network in a way that is more transparent, and provides more accountability and auditability.


Primavera De Filippi