In March of 2021, American digital artist Mike Winkelmann, otherwise known as Beeple, made history. His artwork, Everydays: the first 5000 days, was the first non-fungible token (NFT) ever to be auctioned by a major auction house1. Sold by Christie’s for a head-spinning $69,346,250, it became, to date, the fourth most expensive artwork by a living artist2. Numerous platforms such as Opensea and Rarible provide places to buy and sell NFTs costing anything from the equivalent of a few dollars to millions.
NFTs are a revolutionary new art form for artists, musicians, and makers. For the benefit of those who haven’t already fallen down the crypto-art rabbit hole, an NFT is a unique digital asset or token, a ‘proof of ownership’ on a piece of digital art. They can be bought, sold, collected, and displayed in virtual or physical galleries. Because they are recorded and stored on the blockchain, there is a permanent record of authenticity, ownership and transactions related to the asset. Just one NFT, or several, might be ‘minted’ (created) for a digital artwork, an analogy in the physical world might be a one-off painting, vs a print in a limited number of editions. NFT owners can also action fractionalized ownership, allowing a multitude of people to each own a ‘piece’ of perhaps a very valuable artwork. Art, photography, animation, video, music, cartoon cats, tweets, any of these can become the basis of an NFT, and some rapidly become highly valued. This very new market is awash with possibilities but has numerous challenges too.
A new world of opportunities for artists and creators
Creating NFTs give artists and musicians a chance to connect with a new audience, selling their work directly with no need for agents or dealers. It’s an opportunity not just for those who don’t yet have industry connections, but also for many whose lifestyles are marginalized in their own countries, allowing a freedom of expression that may not be possible or even legal at home. Artists can always see the latest value of their work, as each NFT has a public ledger of its creation and ownership history, whereas in the physical world it’s easy to lose track as art is bought and sold. Even better, creators can opt to automate a royalty paid on their work, so that every time it is sold on, a percentage of the price will come back to them.
Barriers to entry are low to moderate, though not non-existent. A digital artist won’t need to rent a studio to work in (unless their NFTs are based on physical paintings or sculpture that require space). Instead, they’ll need access to the internet and some cryptocurrency, most likely Ethereum as this is the blockchain the majority of NFTs are stored on. This is necessary to cover the costs involved in verifying and processing transactions and might work out to between $50-400 per asset or collection of them. Once armed with cryptocurrency, a would-be NFT artist just chooses which platform they want to use to mint and sell their wares.
A new means of support for museums, galleries, and charities
As well as providing a new revenue stream for artists, NFTs are raising funds for museums around the world and other non-profit organizations.
In Russia, St Petersburg’s State Heritage Museum is creating a limited edition of NFTs created from masterpieces in its own art collection, including works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Monet and Van Gogh. The project, titled ‘Your token is kept in the Hermitage’ is intended not only to raise funds but also to provide a new kind of accessibility to the museum’s collection and lend gravitas to the idea of collecting digital art3. In Italy, after months of revenue loss due to the pandemic, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence created a one-off edition of Doni Tondo by Michelangelo, selling it in May 2021 for $170,000. Hot on the heels of that success, the gallery is now minting NFTs for works including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus4.
Meanwhile, reference book publisher Merriam-Webster minted ‘The Definition of NFT’ and raised around $48,000 for children’s education charity Teach for All5, while NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden worked with photographer Platon Antoniou on a portrait that raised $5.4 million for the Freedom of the Press Foundation6.
NFTs are not only making headlines and raising funds, in the future they may also make museum collections more accessible. Even large museums often only have the space to keep a small percentage of their works on show. Creating NFTs can open up the wider collection to people all around the world.
NFTs and their place in the Metaverse
But one of the most fascinating things about NFTs based on art and collectables is their status as elements in the ‘Metaverse’, a concept set to transform our world in the next decades just as the internet did in the last 20 years. The future Metaverse is a shared, inter-operable digital space containing all the virtual worlds we know, not only in gaming but also social media, ecommerce, education, and recreation, with its own economy and experiences. Sometimes it may be in VR, resembling a next-generation Second Life, sometimes it might be AR, where digital elements are overlaid onto our physical world. Mark Zuckerberg sees it as a means of accessing ‘presence’ in the digital realm, imagining our future Zoom calls with holograms of colleagues, or loved ones seemingly sat right next to us7. At this early stage no one, not even Zuckerberg, can be quite sure what the Metaverse is. Although it was named nearly 30 years ago in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash8, the word doesn’t even feature in the current Merriam-Webster or Cambridge dictionaries.
What we can be sure of however is that NFTs, and galleries in which to view them, will feature in the Metaverse, because they’re already here. Individual Metaverses created largely to display NFTs already exist. This year multinational auction house Sotheby’s opened a prime-location gallery within Decentraland9, the ‘virtual destination for digital assets’, while CryptoVoxels allows users to build stores, museums and galleries in a Minecraft-like environment. In both cases these spaces have their own economies: users can buy ‘land’ with cryptocurrency, ‘hire’ a digital architect to build out their spaces and sell NFTs once they’ve created them. This is a whole new world of art, enabling people all over the world to ‘teleport in’, ‘visit’ galleries and see famous artworks without having to get a visa or pay for a flight. One day the hope is that all these individual Metaverses will link up, allowing people to move seamlessly between different experiences.
The issues still to solve in the new ‘Wild West’: identity, property, and theft
The industry is in its infancy and there are a number of legal and security issues still to be ironed out. Theft is a problem; with not much to stop someone ‘stealing’ a digital artwork and minting it into an NFT. There’s plenty of reported instances of this happening, from people finding false ‘verified accounts’ offering their own work to the heart-breaking story of the Japanese artist whose work was tokenized after her death10. Platforms will take down NFTs based on stolen artwork, and once deceit is discovered an NFT is discredited, but it can be akin to fighting a forest fire, stamp out one and more pop up elsewhere.
In March 2021 hackers stole thousands of dollars’ worth of artwork from NFT marketplace NiftyGateway from users who had neglected to set up two-step authentication on their accounts11. A month later an anonymous artist known as Monsieur Personne ‘sleepminted’ a copy of Beeple’s market-busting Everydays: the first 5,000 days, creating a token that looked like it had been created by Beeple but wasn’t and proving that even NFTs can be fakes12. No doubt all NFT marketplaces are working on ways to stay one step ahead of bad actors.
In this largely unregulated space, tax evasion and money laundering are also potential problems. The IRS sees NFTs as a tax evasion risk, since in theory people using cryptocurrency to buy and sell NFTs may be liable for tax during different parts of the process. Because the ‘value’ of an NFT is subjective, it’s also not too difficult to collude with others, for instance selling an NFT for a hyped-up price to an associate, in order to collect ill-gotten crypto gains. Existing laws may cover some issues but as so often happens, the regulators need to catch up with the technology.
A greener, more sustainable future for NFTs
Like many new art forms throughout history, NFTs have caused controversy, much of it centred around environmental impact. Most are built on the Ethereum blockchain, which is ‘mined’ using the energy-heavy ‘Proof of worth’ system to ensure security. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much energy creating an NFT might use, but it’s been estimated that one Ethereum transaction consumes as much electricity as the average U.S. household uses in just under five days13. Some artists have attempted to make their NFTs carbon neutral by offsetting potential emissions caused by energy use. Opinions differ on how effective this really is.
The good news is that the Ethereum Foundation and others are already finding solutions to radically reduce the amount of energy needed by NFTs in the first place. Ethereum has been working on a move from the electricity-guzzling ‘Proof of work’ system to the far more efficient ‘Proof of stake’ for some years. A 2022 upgrade promises to cut energy use by more than 99%14. In the meantime, some artists are choosing to use Tezos, Wax and other energy-efficient blockchain alternatives to Ethereum, including the British artist Damien Hirst who is using Palm for his monumental new enterprise, The Currency Project, comprising 10,000 oil paintings on paper, each accompanied by its NFT15. In terms of both legal and environmental issues, it is of course in the interests of the entire industry to find solutions, whether through regulation or by vastly reducing its environmental impact.
Some people, particularly those who came of age before the digital revolution, struggle to get their heads around the idea of NFTs. How can anyone assess their value? If things only exist as pixels, do they really exist at all? But this exciting realm is awash with possibilities, not only putting a value on digital art, but opening up to artists and audiences who are entirely new while creating an economy and an ecosystem already worth billions of dollars. With individual Metaverses like Decentraland already offering a ‘place’ to view NFTs in the virtual world, this is no mere fad. As the Metaverse comes of age these experiences will become mainstream. So perhaps it’s time to start breeding those CryptoKitties – NFTs are here to stay.
1. Beeple’s Opus: Created Over 5,000 Days By The Groundbreaking Artist, This Monumental Collage Was The First Purely Digital Artwork (NFT) Ever Offered At Christie’s, Christies, https://www.christies.com/features/Monumental-collage-by-Beeple-is-first-purely-digital-artwork-NFT-to-come-to-auction-11510-7.aspx
2. Beeple’ NFT Sold For $69 million Is The Fourth Most Expensive Artwork Sold By A Living Artist, Cryptoslate, https://cryptoslate.com/beeple-nft-sold-for-69-million-is-the-fourth-most-expensive-artwork-sold-by-a-living-artist/
3. Tokenized Art From The State Hermitage Museum, Including Leonardo Da Vinci, Will Be Featured On The Binance NFT Marketplace, The State Hermitage Museum, https://nftcalendar.io/tokenized-art-from-the-state-hermitage-museum-including-leonardo-da-vinci-will-be-featured-on-the-binance-nft-marketplace/
4. Uffizi Sells Artworks As NFTS To Recover Losses, The Art Insider, https://www.art-insider.com/uffizi-sells-artworks-as-nfts-to-recover-losses/2238
6. Historic Snowden NFT Auction Benefits Freedom Of The Press Foundation, Freedom of the Press Foundation, https://freedom.press/news/historic-snowden-nft-auction-benefits-freedom-of-the-press-foundation/
7. Mark In The Metaverse: Facebook’s CEO On Why The Social Network Is Becoming ‘A Metaverse Company’ https://www.theverge.com/22588022/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-ceo-metaverse-interview
8. Snow Crash, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Crash
9. Sotheby’s Opens A Virtual Gallery In Decentraland, Decentraland, https://decentraland.org/blog/announcements/sotheby-s-opens-a-virtual-gallery-in-decentraland/
10. An Artist Died. Then Thieves Made NFTs Of Her Work, Wired, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/nft-fraud-qinni-art
11. People Are Reporting Thousands Of Dollars Worth Of Crypto Art Was Stolen On An NFT Marketplace, Business Insider, https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/currencies/stolen-nfts-on-nifty-gateway-reports-nft-art-marketplace-2021-3,
12. A New $69 Million NFT Was Sleepminted, NFTheft, https://nftheft.com/
13. Ethereum Energy Consumption Index, Digiconomist, https://digiconomist.net/ethereum-energy-consumption/
14. A Country’s Worth Of Power, No More!, Ethereum Foundation Blog, https://blog.ethereum.org/2021/05/18/country-power-no-more/
15. 1The Currency By Damien Hirst Is Now Live On HENI, Palm, https://palm.io/studio/the-currency-by-damien-hirst-is-now-live-on-heni/