Auction Record for Digital Art: A JPEG for 69 Million US-Dollar

Last Thursday March 11, 2021, a digital art work was sold for more than 69 million US-Dollar at Christie’s New York. The lot was sold at a standalone pure online-sale which had started on February 25. The work sold after bidding opened at 100 US-Dollar two weeks before. The title of the work is “The First 5000 days” and the artist calls himself “Beeple”. It is the first time in the history of the art market that a purely digital artwork was sold at a traditional auction house – Christie`s is a traditional auction house founded in 1766 in London which is known for its high-priced “real” art works.

The living person behind Beeple is the artist Mike Winkelmann. In 2007 he started to post one digital art on his Tumblr account. The record price art work “The First 5000 days” is a combination of his first digital images which he had posted since 2007 on the social platform. The buyer of the work calls himself Metakovan and is known as the founder of the virtual museum or NFT fund called “Metapurse”.

What does Metakovan, the Singapore-based founder, get for his millions? He gets a JPEG, a file with 319 megabyte – or to imagine better the size of the file – 21 069 by 21 069 pixels. With the JPEG comes a special certificate of authenticity called “NFT”: a non-fungible token. It is a file which is recorded on a blockchain. This NFT exists on the Ethereum blockchain so the price paid by the buyer is in the crypto-currency Ethereum. The auction house accepted payment for the hammer price in Ethereum, only the buyer’s premium had to be paid in US-Dollar.

Where does “The First 5000 days” exist? It exists on the blockchain which is something like a database whose transactions are recorded and distributed over several computers in the net. So the file is forgery-proof and can not be copied by anyone else but the owner of the special key in his certificate, the string of numbers and letters.

The interesting thought behind this exceptional price for a file can be described as follows: Every asset known as of today like shares, bonds, or money – can be transmitted on a blockchain – it can become a tokenized code. So far, art aimed to be more and something else apart from being estimated as a pure asset. Of course, art works were collected for centuries by wealthy and powerful leaders in the world to demonstrate their position in society. And naturally the owner of expensive art mainly hoped that the price he/she had paid for a painting or sculpture would increase and not decline. But with this sale of a NFT art is mainly reduced to an asset.

Now this file can not be copied – it is original and singular in the world. But it has no special size or any other haptic character. It is a JPEG which can be presented on a screen. For centuries art works were copied and sold as forgeries. On the one hand, this traditional problem in art history disappears with a NFT. There won’t be forgeries anymore. But on the other hand, there is no aesthetic moment any more – something which even fake works use to have.

This record sale is a step in the art market into one specific direction: Art is estimated as a pure asset. It can be valued like a second cryptocurrency. If the aesthetic value behind a NFT will completely disappear is not yet predictable. Sometimes looking at the past helps to evaluate the current situation.

Art has changed radically within the last 500 years. With Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the moveable-type printing the market for graphics was born. With Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invention of the photography the market for artistic photographies was born. And with George Maciunas the art world was enlarged by experimental art performances. Maybe Beeple will become part of this list of extraordinary figures in art history.

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