On Thursday, a work of digital art shattered records at storied auction house Christie’s, selling for a historic $60.25 million ($69.3 million with buyer’s fees). It’s the highest price commanded by a JPEG file thus far—paid for, in true 2021 style, with the cryptocurrency ether.
The art was created a month ago by a graphic designer dubbed Beeple. Called Everydays—The First 5000 Days, the piece is a collage of every image Beeple has made, totaling one per day since 2007. In February, it was minted into a nonfungible token (NFT) using relatively nascent technology that certifies the authenticity and ownership of a “token” through a digital ledger of all its past transactions—in other words, a blockchain, which many now recognize for forming the backbone of cryptocurrency networks.
While $60 million seems steep for a work of digital art, which technically anybody could view or download themselves, NFT technology guarantees only one name will be inscribed in the ledger as the piece’s current owner, leaving an indelible signature in its virtual provenance—one that will theoretically be coded and recoded in perpetuity.
As the first NFT auctioned by Christie’s—and the first lot for which the 255-year-old house accepted cryptocurrency—Everydays has catapulted recent hype over NFTs to new, dizzying heights. While NFTs have existed for almost as long as cryptocurrency and the blockchain itself, their prospects have ebbed and flowed with the market for digital assets such as bitcoin and ether. But as the value of the bitcoin surged for five consecutive months to over $50,000 last month (at press time it was worth around $57,000), NFTs have ridden a gigantic wave of speculation straight into the world of ultra-wealthy art collectors.
Several weeks ago, a Miami-based art collector sold a 10-second video NFT, also made by Beeple, for $6.6 million, after purchasing it for just $67,000 this past October. Today’s sale at Christie’s was the third-largest fortune paid in an auction for the work of a living artist, rocketing it into the dollar realm of museum superstars such as J.M.W. Turner and Francisco Goya.
There is demonstrable optimism for the future of NFTs: Noah Davis, a Christie’s specialist who organized the sale, told Bloomberg, “It’s a huge shot in the arm for the business generally. . . . I think we will have really compelling and exciting NFT-based art opportunities at Christie’s in the near future.” Nevertheless, some are wary. Todd Levin, a New York art adviser who saw a Leonardo da Vinci painting sell for $450 million in 2017, told The New York Times, “On the one hand, it’s super exciting to witness a historical inflection point. On the other hand, the amount of money involved could skew and damage a nascent emerging market.”
Meanwhile, further ushering NFTs into the mainstream are Kings of Leon, a multiplatinum rock band that will release the first NFT-certified music album this week.