Hearing the hammer fall on CryptoPunk 7523 at Sotheby’s on Thursday 10th June, 2021, was a breathtaking moment. The price was one thing, jumping from a bid of $1.8m straight to the winning bid at $11.8m (4520 ETH), but the occasion was more significant. In the traditional art world, the value placed on a unique and sought-after piece in a recognised body of work can be seen again and again in high profile auctions. Banksy’s “Love is in the Air”, for example, sold for $12.9m in a Sotheby’s auction just a month earlier. The CryptoPunk 7523 sale, and the rest of the pieces in the Natively Digital auction that together sold for another $5.4m, put digital art on an equal footing with other artistic media.
Drawn by the same hand
Why is this important? Artists and other creators see digital as just another medium for expression. As an author, I write my books on a computer. Is my manuscript less valuable than one written longhand on paper? From the high value, thriving market in handwritten manuscripts from the pre-digital age, it would appear so. My earnings come from sales of the books themselves, of course, but what about that digital original?
The question is more pressing for fine artists. Recently I spoke to artist James Atkins who has travelled the road from physical media at Camberwell College of Arts to digital art as it emerged and evolved. When his digitally-created art was recently exhibited, people struggled with the idea that the original was not an oil or a watercolour or a sculpture. “I printed giclée on massive Epson printers with beautiful quality paper, incredibly vibrant and framed,” he says. “People were looking at these prints, saying, Well, which one is the original?” There isn’t a physical, tangible original. “It exists digitally, and that’s a printout,” he told them. “It’s done on an iPad, but it’s still my hand drawing it.”
This is a market where originals command the highest value and prints come a poor second. The Banksy original of Love is in the Air may have sold for $12.9m but a print of a version of the same work sold for ‘only’ $163,800 in a sale in April. If artists are to be properly rewarded for their creations, then the digital original has to be raised to the same standard as the physical.
Blockchain, and specifically the development of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), has given us a way to prove that a digital work has been created by a particular artist, to timestamp its creation, and crucially to allow ownership to pass from one person to another. Not only this, but NFT provenance and ownership transfer have significant advantages. The provenance can be checked and verified by anyone on the transparent blockchain ledger, and conditions of transfer of ownership can be programmed into the ‘token contract’ that defines the properties of the NFT. These include sending the original creator a percentage of the resale of their work, enabling artists to benefit from the vagaries of the market once the artwork is out of their hands. Some token contracts even send money to charity. Ubisoft’s Rabbids tokens send the proceeds of every ownership transfer to Unicef.
Digital originals are as valid as physical originals, and the sale of CryptoPunk 7523 has brought digital art into the mainstream. This was the intention behind the work that owner @SillyTuna put in with Sotheby’s and the other sale artists to make it happen. It’s worth noting that in the spirit of a responsible NFT, the creators, Larva Labs, and earlier owners were involved in the work and were there in the virtual room when the hammer fell. A proportion of the sale proceeds have also been donated to charity.
We now have the technology to support digital originals. I expect that in the future physical originals will also be backed by a token contract to take advantage of the benefits that these confer. It’s an exciting time.