Mike Winkelmann never used to call himself an artist. But that was before he made $3.5 million in a single weekend from selling his artworks. In December, he auctioned off multiple editions of three digital artworks, each priced at $969, and 21 unique works, most of which sold for about $100,000 each. It was only the second time he had put his art on sale.
The digital artist, who goes by Beeple, has created a drawing every single day for the last 13 years. He started with pen and paper but now mostly uses computer software such as the program Cinema 4D. On Thursday, a two-week-long online auction of a composite of the first 5,000 days of the project will begin at Christie’s, which says it’s the auction house’s first sale of a solely digital artwork. It will also be the first time that Christie’s will accept payment in the cryptocurrency Ether.
Beeple is selling these works as NFTs — nonfungible tokens — digital collectibles that use blockchain technology as authentication. An NFT can take any form, but for Beeple, it usually consists of an image or video file, sometimes with a physical object attached, verified with a digital signature on a blockchain. NFTs cleverly respond to the art world’s need for authentication and provenance in an increasingly digital world, permanently linking a digital file to its creator. It makes digital artworks unique, and therefore, sellable.
The speculative market for NFTs has skyrocketed in the last 12 months, and continues to grow. According to the NFT Report 2020, published by L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Nonfungible.com, the value of the NFT market tripled in 2020, putting its current value over $250 million. Now, the same investors who speculate on cryptocurrencies are trading wildly increasing volumes of NFTs on websites such as MakersPlace (which is partnering with Christie’s for the Beeple sale), SuperRare, and Rarible, where recent transactions are front and center. Memes and graphic collectibles are sold alongside artworks like Beeple’s, blurring the line between them.
Although it’s the first time that Christie’s will sell a purely virtual work, the art world is familiar with this genre of sale. To take one example, anyone could duct tape a banana to the wall, but it wouldn’t be Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian.” Likewise, someone could easily make a digital copy of Beeple’s “Everydays — The First 5000 Days,” but even though the content would be exactly the same, they wouldn’t own the artwork itself without blockchain verification. NFTs make it possible to collect digital artworks in a similar way to paintings, sculptures or conceptual artwork.
“I don’t know anything about the traditional art world,” said Beeple, a computer science graduate, who only began researching NFTs in mid-October. Though he was a newcomer to both fine art and crypto-art, his “Everydays” project, now 13 years in, has become popular online. He’s amassed a huge following (nearly two million on Instagram, 200,000 on Twitter) with his apocalyptic, warped aesthetic leading to commissions from brands such as Louis Vuitton, whose Spring 2019 collection was emblazoned with his images.
Beeple’s work has a brash, in-your-face appeal, like a political sketch cartoon set in a dystopian video game. Politicians like Donald J. Trump, Kim Jong-un and Hillary Clinton feature (often nude with mutant, robot bodies), as do Buzz Lightyear, Mickey Mouse and Pikachu. Since Winkelmann creates one drawing per day, his works often riff on what’s been happening in the news, instantly metabolizing internet culture into visual commentary. It’s a style that speaks the native tongue of a cadre of meme-literate speculators, many of whom have made huge sums from tech and crypto investments.
After an initial “drop” (a term laced with streetwear overtones) of NFTs in October, Winkelmann decided to conduct his December sale through the website Nifty Gateway. The sale broke the top records for digital art within five minutes. Many buyers immediately resold the works at higher prices, seeing their initial investment multiply within minutes. Today, many of these works are selling for more than 1,000 percent of their original price.
“That was a real wake up call for all of us,” said Noah Davis, a specialist in postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, “to see such significant sums being paid.”
“We’re right up against a potential paradigm shift,” Davis continued, pointing to the recent boom in cryptocurrencies and the GameStop revolt against Wall Street this year as evidence that financial marketplaces are swiftly changing.
Beeple works with two gigantic TV screens always on, one tuned to Fox and the other to CNN, both muted, on the wall of his studio, which is also furnished with a leather couch and plush beige carpeting. Reached for interview on Zoom, he was enthusiastic and irreverent, with an unabashed demeanor, with neatly parted hair and wearing a half-zip gray sweater with a button-down underneath. He looked, in short, more likely to offer you tech support than a radical new medium of artwork.
For a long time, Beeple felt dismissed by the art world. He is taking great pleasure at this crypto-fueled reversal. These works, most of which he offhandedly describes as “crap,” are suddenly being anointed by one of the art world’s most venerated auction houses. “The traditional art world is like: ‘Who’s this kid,’ but I also have 1.8 million followers on Instagram,” he said. “The Christie’s thing brings a level of validation for this.”
The fine art world is “finally starting to recognize digital artists as real art,” he added.
For a whole raft of digital illustrators and graphic artists who have struggled to make a living from their work, this is a game changer. NFTs represent a do-it-yourself shortcut to get around the establishment gatekeepers. “There’s an argument to be made for this as ‘punk,’” said Ruth Catlow, a researcher and curator at the decentralized art lab Furtherfield in London and an editor of the book “Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain.” “It speaks to the battered dignity of a long-suffering artist class perpetually struggling to make a living, but who are devalued by the higher art-market machines and the marketing platforms.”
The huge sums of money being made on NFTs, however, tell a different story. Typically, the art world disdains “flipping” — when a collector buys a work and then immediately resells it at a profit. But unlike traditional artworks, with NFTs, the blockchain that authenticates the work can also create a set of rules that govern its future use. For example, Beeple’s contract will ensure that he, as the artist, earns money as others speculate on his work — in his case 10 percent of every sale on the secondary market (an industry standard for NFTs). In this sense, NFTs offer a model for artists to capture the value of their work as it grows. “When you buy the artwork, you’re sort of entering into a relationship with me,” he said.
Catlow said in a video interview, “They are enabling these artists to program a set of contracts with the collectors into the work.”
She added that she sees the Beeple sale at Christie’s as “pure spectacle,” a “financial event,” while many artists are migrating to platforms like Zora and Foundation, and creating D.A.O.s (decentralized autonomous organizations) that allow them to put community values before art speculators. “You can see these programmable artworks as a way to create new forms of relationships,” Catlow said.
This opens up more radical possibilities for sharing the profits of artwork using NFTs. The artist Sara Ludy, for example, recently announced that she has pre-emptively negotiated a 7 percent profit for each of the workers at her gallery, bitforms, for any future NFT sales. “I wanted to set an example of one of the many ways funds could be redistributed with this new market,” Ludy wrote in an email.
“This is the first time, at least I’ve seen, where artists have an upper hand in a market,” she said. “That’s a really great feeling.”
Like many artists considering minting NFTs, Ludy is also concerned by the huge environmental impact of cryptocurrency, of which Bitcoin is the worst offender. But NFTs, which mostly run on the separate Ethereum network, are rapidly transitioning toward a proof-of-stake model (as opposed to the current proof-of-work model) that will be not only more energy-efficient but also faster, and cheaper — incentives that are likely to encourage the shift.
The low bar to entry (anyone can mint an NFT, in theory) and outsider mentality offers one obvious parallel: street art. “I think of them as being similar in the way that they are disrupting the traditional categories for collecting contemporary art,” said Davis, of Christie’s.
Beeple, however, had his eyes on the numbers, noting that Christie’s auctioned off 21 works by Banksy in September, the same number of works as his $3.5 million drop. “They only,” he paused to put air quotes around the final word, “did $2.9 million,” he said, before bursting into full-throated laughter.
The estimate on his own Christie’s auction? “Unknown.”