Recently, a piece of collage art entitled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” by an artist known as Beeple, sold at a Christie’s auction for $69 million. The Wall Street Journal noted that the price was higher than any that has ever been paid for works of Frida Kahlo, Paul Gaugin, or Salvador Dali. But, before the auction, few outside the digital art world had ever heard of Beeple, which may explain why the bidding started at just $100. But the sale does not suggest a sudden re-evaluation of his talents. Instead, it is a stunning statement about the medium of the art itself or, more precisely, the lack of it. In fact, “Everdays: The First 5000 Days” isn’t made out of anything you can touch. It is entirely virtual.
Unlike other pieces of high priced art, you can’t hang it over your mantle to dazzle your dinner guests. The image is only available on your computer or, better still, through a virtual reality headset. But even as the owner of the image, you won’t be able to control access to it. The file has been copied thousands of times, so anyone with access to the internet can look at it as much as you. And unlike the clear differences that exist between an original Van Gogh and even the best copies, there will be no visual differences between the digital copies and the original.
Instead, what the buyer paid for is a unique claim to ownership. And while the art itself can be replicated endlessly, the claim, which entitles the owner to nothing more than the right to resell the claim, appears to be worth $69 million. Welcome to the brave new world of non-fungible tokens (better known as NFTs), the kooky offspring of the red-hot crypto currency market. In the NFT universe, a piece of virtual art is worth almost $10 million more than a 238-foot “Bond Villian” mega yacht in the real world. Call me crazy, but I’ll take the boat.
NFTs are made possible by the same “blockchain” technology that provides bitcoin with its claims to “scarcity.” Through its distributed ledger model, the supply of cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, can be strictly limited, and claims of unique ownership can not be counterfeited. The same technique provides NFTs with their unique “non-fungible” features. But so what? They still have no tangible properties?
The buyer who paid $69 million for the Beeple collage can take comfort from the fact that a single 10-second animated video by the same artist, of a giant dead Donald Trump covered in graffiti, was purchased in October 2020 for $67,000 and was just sold for $6.6 million! No matter that the video is viewable for free online. Price rises like that have fueled an NFT feeding frenzy that is taking many bizarre forms. In recent days, NFT versions of sports trading cards, sneakers, and clothing have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. An NFT version of a tweet by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey just sold for $2.9 million.
It’s getting so crazy that even jokes about the absurdity get quickly swallowed up in the absurdity. A man in New York just sold an NFT fart for $75 (a relative bargain considering that a virtual version is far less offensive to the nose than a real one.) As proof that this is all just one giant Monty Python spoof, British comedian John Cleese (the founder of the troop) just posted for sale a simple doodle he drew of the Brooklyn Bridge with the caption, “You want to buy a bridge?” (recalling the classic scam of New York City immigrants). As of press time, Cleese’s doodle is selling for $36,000. Cheap for an historic bridge, but don’t worry John, there are still 10 days left in the auction.