A collection of Bura terracotta sculptures at the Lam Museum of Anthropology

Factum Foundation is collaborating with the Art and Antiquities Blockchain Consortium, run by Susan de Menil, and the Lam Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University to combine blockchain code with 3D scans of artworks and artefacts, beginning with a collection of looted Bura terracotta sculptures that the Lam is in the process of repatriating to the Ministry of Culture in Niger. 

© Wake the Arts

Whether in developing countries that have been subject to political instability such as Niger, or in UK museums that have been targeted by thieves over a long period of time, digitisation is an effective means of dissuading looting through enabling future authentication, in which blockchain can provide an unalterable record of the movement of the objects.

Ferdinand Saumarez Smith visited Wake Forest University in January 2023 as part of a two-day seminar sponsored by the Wake Forest University Interdisciplinary Arts CenterWake the Arts and the AABC and centered on the complex issues of repatriation and cultural heritage. A collection of terracotta sculptures donated by a collector of African art now in the Lam Museum of Anthropology was traced to the extensive looting of the Bura archaeological sites (ca. 3rd-11th centuries) in Niger following an exhibit in the 1990s. In preparation for their repatriation, Factum Foundation used photogrammetry to build 3D models of the sculptures. Those 3D models will be combined with blockchain codes enabling future authentication by providing an unalterable record of the movement of the objects. Students from across disciplines at Wake Forest had the opportunity to participate in the scanning and learn more about the digital replication process while also thinking through the ethics, legal frameworks, and contracts for repatriation.

Ferdinand Saumarez Smith recording one of the terracotta sculptures using photogrammetry © Factum Foundation