The Italian Ministry of Culture has halted state-run museums from entering contracts with tech companies to mint NFTs. Massimo Osanna, Italy’s Director-General of Museums, stated, “Given that the matter is complex and unregulated, the ministry has temporarily asked its institutions to refrain from signing contracts relating to NFTs. The basic intention is to avoid unfair contracts.” By “unfair contracts”, Osanna is likely referring to what happened in Florence earlier this year.
Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is one of the world’s most famous, most respected art institutions. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Annunciation, and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, among many other masterworks, are included in the museum’s collection. But as the effects of the pandemic taught us, even centuries-old institutions like the Uffizi can be vulnerable and require outside help to stay afloat. The Uffizi and at least five other Italian state-run museums are currently or have previously been engaged in contracts with the NFT start-up Cinello to license images from their collections to mint digital works. Major museums in Italy and beyond began exploring this new realm years ago, as early as 2016. But these same museums started focusing more on digital works at the start of the pandemic. This was because major museums needed to diversify their income sources after seeing their annual visitorship decline by around 70%. To be fair, Cinello has done their job rather well, minting several digital works based on Uffizi collection highlights, such as Caravaggio’s Bacchus and Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. But the NFT based on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo has gotten the most attention since it was the first to sell. The sale, which was finalized earlier this year, may have been seen as a landmark moment for digital arts. But the Italian Culture Ministry failed to see the silver lining. In their opinion, the museum got screwed.
While the Ministry never made much of a fuss about NFTs before, this latest decision comes after the details of the Uffizi’s contract with Cinello came to light. According to the agreement between the start-up and the museum, the Uffizi would receive half of any profits from NFTs produced based on the museum’s collection. A fair arrangement, it seems. However, according to this contract, the museum’s half would also exclude any tax, commission, production costs, etc. In the end, the Uffizi only received €70K of the €240K made in the sale, just under a third rather than half. So the government is saying that the museum got gouged, more or less.
Possibly because of some controversy surrounding NFTs, Cinello claims they do not produce NFTs. Rather, they create what they call digital artworks (DAWs), sometimes called digitally-encrypted works. Despite the different name, it uses NFT tokens created on a blockchain. Cinello has also clarified that the rights to the images used in their blockchain-based works remain with the museums. Therefore, the owner of this digital work is not allowed to have it exhibited publicly, nor can they license the work to be used in other media. It’s solely for your private enjoyment. To be honest, it might be better to buy a plane ticket to Florence, buy a ticket for general admission to the Uffizi, and purchase an overpriced poster of the work. It would still be a more fulfilling experience and significantly cheaper than buying this NFT or DAW or whatever set of initials you want to use. The creation and selling of the Doni Tondo NFT seemed needlessly more complicated than it had to be. And overall, the culture ministry may be making the right move to err on the side of caution in the face of this unregulated new medium.