Before 1911 the Mona Lisa was just another Renaissance painting. It wasn't until August that year that the Mona Lisa was launched into international fame to later become one of the most recognized and most valuable paintings in the world, the crown jewel of the Louvre with almost 10 million visitors a year.
On August 21st, 1911 an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia was hired to make protective glass for some of the museum's most famous works, including the Mona Lisa.
However, Peruggia had other plans. In perhaps the simplest heist in history, he hid in a closet overnight. When the coast was clear, he simply removed the painting and proceeded to exit the building. There were no alarm bells and very little security.
On the way out, however, he found the museum's front door locked. He tried to open it by removing the doorknob but still couldn't get out. As luck would have it a helpful plumber who had a key came along and opened the door!
It was 24 hours before any of the museum staff noticed the Mona Lisa was missing. It wasn't unusual for artworks to be removed for cleaning. Over the next few years, the police investigated the crime, much to the delight of the press but it remained an international mystery. At one point, even Picasso was supposedly a suspect.
Funny enough, people from all around came to see the empty spot where the Mona Lisa had once stood. Now that it had vacated the building and its whereabouts were unknown, the stolen Mona Lisa was more popular than ever.
Two years had passed when a Florence art dealer received a letter from a man who said he had the Mona Lisa. Apparently, Peruggia had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italian soil and had hidden it in his apartment the entire time. The Florence art dealer authenticated the Mona Lisa and called the police on Peruggia. The handyman was arrested and spent seven months in jail.
This is just one of many examples of art theft which is sadly all too common. The difference with art thieves today is the ease of online theft, especially with the rise of modern technologies like NFTs (or non-fungible tokens).
NFTs, a double edge tech sword?
Over the past year, many artists have complained that some of their artworks are being released as NFTs against their will.
While hailed as a huge technology boost for the art world with the well-publicized multi-million dollar digital art sales, NFTs’ newfound popularity has produced a new breed of thieves.
Like Peruggia, an NFT thief definitely doesn't need to be a master criminal to steal. All they have to do is take someone’s artwork, create an NFT with it, and sell it on open NFT marketplaces.
Mark Cuban legitimizing easy theft!
RJ Palmer is well-known for drawing particularly lifelike images of Pikachu characters which lead to a job working on the video game Detective Pikachu.
Unfortunately, this newfound fame also had its drawbacks. He began to get emails and DMs from people wanting to know if he had started selling his artwork on an NFT marketplace.
Upon further investigation, Palmer found out not only had his artwork been stolen but somebody was pretending to be him online using fake accounts.
Thankfully the artist emailed the NFT platform and shot out a couple of tweets saying that he hadn't tokenized his artwork and the artwork was taken down but not before a couple of his fans bought it.
Then Palmer caught another scam when a new NFT platform called Tokenized Tweets tokenized one of Palmer’s tweets which had one of his artworks. Incidentally Tokenized Tweets promoted by Mark Cuban, who is investing in the NFT space and maybe unwittingly thought it’s an interesting NFT idea.
What To Do When You Find An Unauthorized NFT?
Thankfully due to laws in North America, generally, anything that you have created is protected by copyright the moment you create it. Both in Canada and the United States, you do not need to register your artwork.
In Canada, copyright lasts 50 years after you die and in the United States 70 years. After that, the work becomes public domain and anyone can use it. This means that you can print a t-shirt with the Mona Lisa and it would be perfectly legal but Mickey Mouse is still protected until 70 years after Walt Disney's death in 2036.
Part of the problem is that many NFT marketplaces are open platforms where anyone can create and publish NFTs, and with the volume of uploads it’s hard to be vigilant enough to protect artists' rights.
They need to do a better job at ensuring that the seller indeed holds the copyright to the piece of art which is being sold.
However, that’s easier said than done. The powerful advantage of the remarkable technology behind NFTs creates a major challenge for regulation and protection. NFTs are usually created and distributed on a blockchain network which makes them unstoppable, an NFT can never be truly taken down.
In this brave new world, artists need to protect their brand and their artwork, and even if they are still on the fence when it comes to creating NFTs, they at least should make it clear that they are not doing NFTs, or planning to do them soon, with sharing a link to their site where they ask their followers if they are interested in buying their NFT artworks.
Claiming your place in the NFT market, even if you don’t plan to use it, is just like buying your domain name, even if you don’t plan to publish your website just yet.
Because if you don’t, someone will.
Artists have to be more attentive than ever before, do constant searches on their name and include NFT marketplaces in that search to ensure their work is not being stolen.
It’s hard to deal with art and identity theft. The first time this happens it may carry a heavy weight and you may feel like someone took away everything you’ve built to this moment. Take a step to breathe, stay calm, collected, and get to action.
The first thing you need to do is inform the NFT marketplace hosting that person of the artwork. NFT marketplaces usually only promote artists that provide proof that they have produced the artwork, and are generally good at removing the artwork from their marketplace when you notify them, although sometimes it might take more than a few emails, and probably a letter or two from a lawyer, by then a degree of damage is done, and some of the fans may fall victim to the fraud.
You should also act quickly and clearly inform their community. Be mindful not to create outrage, just invite people to help you take action, report the person and the artwork, spread the word and help tell everyone they know.
In this new blockchain world where everything is recorded some may think it’s easy to track down the perpetrator, but that requires the resources of a government agency, which means almost no one will be caught or prosecuted which only invites more criminals to steal people's identity and sell NFTs.
In the future as the market becomes more mature and NFTs become more mainstream there will likely be more regulations in place which means artists hopefully won't have to self-police their artwork and it will fall to the responsibility of the NFT marketplaces to find effective solutions, and more tools and options will be available to protect the artists and help them benefit the most from the unstoppable power of NFTs.