AML for NFTs: How Digital Artwork Is Used to Clean Dirty Money, and How to Stop It

The art world has gone digital, thanks in large part to the advent of so-called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs, like cryptocurrencies, use blockchain technology (a disaggregated database made up of immutable blocks of data), which makes it possible to attach a unique authenticating token—sort of like a digital signature—to a digital item, most commonly a piece of digital artwork. The primary difference between an NFT and a unit of cryptocurrency is that one NFT cannot be exchanged for another—they are, as the name implies, non-fungible. That non-fungibility enables creators of digital art to sell NFTs of their work for profit. That’s important, because unlike traditional artwork, it’s extremely easy to create perfect copies of digital artwork. But one cannot simply copy an NFT. Of course, one can copy the image itself, but the copy, though identical to the naked eye, will lack the authenticating token. Why, you might reasonably ask, would anyone pay for an NFT when they can get the original image for free? Critics have raised these and other questions, but it seems that a sufficient number of people derive pleasure from collecting the original artwork, or from supporting the artists, or from the belief that the price of NFTs will continue to rise, that trade in NFTs has become big business. An artist known as Beeple sold one NFT for $69 million. Platforms from cryptocurrency exchanges to the hundreds-years-old art auction house Sotheby’s (and potentially the movie theater chain AMC) have entered into the growing NFT market; in the third quarter of 2021, the trading volume of NFTs exceeded $10 billion.

As in other emerging high-value markets, however, NFTs present a money laundering risk. Indeed, NFTs sit at the intersection of two sectors that are already characterized by high money laundering risk: fine art and cryptocurrencies. Because of the uniquely-high money laundering risk posed by these digital assets, FinCEN should issue NFT-specific anti-money laundering (AML) compliance guidance, and Congress should extend the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to apply to NFT marketplaces.

Before proceeding to regulatory solutions, it’s worth elaborating on why NFTs pose a significant money laundering risk. As just noted, NFTs are particularly high risk because they combine two sectors that are already characterized by high money laundering risk, albeit for different reasons:

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