Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
At 10am EST tomorrow, February 25, Christie’s will become the first major auction house to offer a purely digital artwork — Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS,” a unique NFT (non-fungible token) consisting of 5,000 individual images created every day between 2007 and 2021 and posted on the artist’s Instagram. Previously, Beeple’s works had only been offered in what are known as “drops,” timed online sales by blockchain-backed marketplaces like Nifty Gateway, where they have fetched up to $3.5 million in a single weekend. In another first, the house will also accept payment for the artwork in cryptocurrency, a coin known as Ether. (The buyer’s premium, a set of fees tacked on to the principal, must be paid in dollars.)
NFTs are not new; they’ve been around for years now. But Christie’s upcoming sale has decidedly catapulted them into the mainstream, with digital creators reaping the benefits of the crypto-collectibles craze in enormous ways. Micah Johnson, a former baseball player turned artist, sold $1 million in NFT art in one minute. A unique NFT for the “Nyan Cat” gif, created 10 years ago by artist Chris Torres, sold for nearly half a million dollars on Foundation, a platform that gives artists 10% of secondary transactions.
For those among us who love the smell of turpentine and a good stretched canvas, the rise of NFTs is quite mind-boggling. What, exactly, is an NFT artwork? That was our first question for Noah Davis, a specialist in the Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York who is leading the upcoming sale. Understanding NFTs is “an exercise in abstraction,” Davis conceded. “The actual NFT-based artwork is just a code. It doesn’t exist. It has no objecthood.”
The sale — which Davis predicts will be more like “a mosh pit” — goes live in less than 24 hours. Read the full interview below.
* * *
Hyperallergic: Beeple’s work is described as “an entirely digital artwork with no physical component.” What is it, then? If you put in the winning bid for this artwork, what are you buying?
Noah Davis: It’s important to define the artwork itself and the symbol that represents the artwork, separately. The actual NFT-based artwork is truly just a non-fungible token — it’s a long series of letters and numbers that is dropped into a digital wallet. But the symbol that represents the token is the monumental collage that Beeple put together, and one could argue that the token basically implies that this is contained within it. It’s the first 5,000 images from his ongoing project The Everydays, in which every day he makes a new image. More recently, they have been very politically or pop-culturally inclined. But the actual NFT-based artwork is just a code. It doesn’t exist. It has no objecthood. We are not selling a painting to hang on your wall. That being said, Mike [Winkelmann, aka Beeple] is very interested in collaborating with the ultimate owner of the work to display it. A lot of artists are very controlling about how their work is displayed, shared, disseminated, but Mike is much more of the mind that it’s up to the owner of the work how they want to live with it and how they want it to be shown.
H: Let’s say I’m the buyer of the artwork and I want to look at it. Forget displaying it for other people — I just want to look at the 5,000 images that I purchased. How would I go about doing that?
ND: You could look at it on your phone, your computer, your tablet, or in virtual reality. Really, the only pre-requisite is a screen that has access to the image. It’s not something that you can think of and conjure in your mind’s eye just yet — you do need that portal. Maybe there will be a chip that can be implanted in your head one day, but we’re not quite there yet.
H: Maybe in a couple of months. Okay, so why would anyone buy this? Like an NFT, a painting is also completely unique, but it’s also a physical object. Could you argue that NFTs are making a market-driven art world even more speculative, because they’re a non-tangible investment?
ND: There’s a lot of good questions there. The most provocative one right up front is why would you buy this, and there are very many correct answers. There are people who are going to look at this as a volatile marketplace that represents an opportunity for speculation and potentially a windfall down the line. Even though this is probably going to command an extraordinary price, there are people out there who are looking at this as a potential investment opportunity. Then there are people who are looking at this as a radical declaration of philosophy or values or investments in the concept of a future where blockchain technology and NFTs and cryptocurrency become the norm for transacting in the financial marketplace.
And there’s also people who are great lovers of art and novelty and rarity, and this plays to their desire, their thirst for something new and different and challenging — from both the literal, philosophical perspective but also from a very art historically-oriented perspective. I think of the people who were interested in Maurizio Cattelan’s “Banana,” for example. It’s the same kind of bravery — maybe even foolishness sprinkled in — but there’s always going to be an audience for something that challenges and disrupts. What’s the ultimate price tag? Well, “estimate unknown” is there for a reason.
H: There’s a lot of talk about the starting bid for Beeple’s work being quite low — $100 — and in that way the barrier to entry for people who may not even self-identify as collectors being low as well. At the same, time, how quickly will this $100 starting bid skyrocket? If I had to guess, I would say in seconds we would be in the tens of thousands.
ND: This is what makes this exercises so interesting. I hope that for at least an hour or two it remains accessible for a wide array of people, because it’s going to be fun — it’s going to be like a party, really, when the bidding opens up (or a mosh pit). But I do think there are differing approaches in terms of the collector audience. NFT collectors are used to drops that take place over an hour or several hours or maximum a day. Our bidding window is much wider [February 25-March 11] to accommodate for a collecting category that’s used to having 10 to 14 days to bid.
I believe we will get a lot of activity up front from the traditional crypto and NFT collecting category. We will likely see a plateau in the bidding, whether that’s in the first couple hours or days, and then a lull, and then finally another flurry of activity in the last 24-28 hours of bidding. The established, old guard collectors who are very savvy at this kind of thing and have done this a million times will be bidding at the eleventh hour against the most competitive of those first bidders.
H: I want to shift gears now to the consignment of a digital artwork. In this case, the consignor — the person who is selling the work through Christie’s — is Beeple himself, correct?
ND: The consignor is Beeple and MakersPlace, which is another NFT gateway, a primary marketplace for NFT drops, and they’re also a digital wallet.
H: Some platforms like Zora allow artists to take a percentage of future resales, and the blockchain makes that easier because it’s a perfect tracking system for the provenance and movement of a work. Can this work by Beeple be resold, and what happens if and when it is resold, does Beeple get a cut?
ND: That’s a good question, and that’s a bridge that we have not crossed yet. I imagine we will be crossing it soon. But the resale issue with NFTs is undefined. We’re going to have to address the question at some point.
H: Because I think what’s interesting is that, being an NFT, this work does not necessarily need to be resold through the art market. I don’t need to go to a gallery and consign my work and have them be the middleman — this is something I can sell anywhere. In a way, the walls are coming down.
ND: Totally. The artwork can’t disappear. It cannot be stowed away in a Freeport; it can’t be hidden. It is there for anybody that wants to find it. So it does democratize things in a pretty radical way. And we’re only just beginning to see how this kind of technology can be woven into the art collecting interface. It’s very possible that we will see blockchain technology being utilized for other purposes that nobody anticipated in the art world.
H: And in line with that, I guess we’ll also know who the buyer is because it’ll be recorded on the blockchain, right?
ND: Well, at the very least you’ll know which wallet the artwork — the NFT — is contained in. But that doesn’t necessarily ID the person who controls that wallet. A lot of people in this space use pseudonyms, aliases, that sort of thing. I suspect that the buyer is going to want to publicize their identity just because of the nature of the sale, but we’ll see.
H: I’ve also heard authenticity will no longer be an issue with the blockchain. No one can copy this work, and no one can question who made it. That’s pretty significant, right?
ND: Well, it is, and it isn’t. It’s funny how it also allows for anybody and everyone to be able to copy it, in the sense that you can take a screenshot of the artwork that’s illustrated on the website right now and you essentially have the artwork in a more traditional way of understanding art as the drawing or the product of the artist’s creative energy. But the actual NFT is totally intangible and inaccessible to anybody. It’s another exercise in abstraction. It completely eradicates the question of authenticity in that these codes can only exist in one place at one time, but it also disrupts the way we think about the discrete art object. Anybody can have it — it’s on his Instagram, that’s the Duchampian readymade he’s playing with.
H: In a way, it is like Cattelan’s work. I can also buy a banana and tape it to the wall, but I don’t have the certificate for one of the numbered editions he made, which were sold by the gallery.
ND: Exactly. That’s the secret sauce, whatever you want to call it. That is the residue that enchants an artwork, this idea that you’re establishing its identity and scarcity, its rarity, and that is what’s so great about blockchain. You can do that in a way that is very obvious, even if it is a little bit beguiling and tricky because we’re so used to thinking about art in this very literal, real, lived way. But I think the shutdown and everything that has happened in the last year has really prepared people for a reality where we’re equating the virtual with lived experience. I think people at the beginning of quarantine becoming obsessed with “Animal Crossing,” for instance, and building homes and interacting with each other in a way that was just as genuine and authentic and real as going to somebody’s house and hanging out… You can do that via this conduit, and it’s the same thing with art. It’s not that big of a leap.
H: As we see more digital artworks, do you think that traditional, physical art become even rarer and more valuable?
ND: In their sort of retro-physicality, right? It’s possible, who knows. I don’t believe we are at the point now where NFTs are going to overtake paintings, sculpture, and drawings, as investment classes and things that people love to experience and engage with, because that’s never happened in the history of art. I don’t think we’ll ever lose that physicality, even if we wind up in a world that is more or less lived completely virtually. There’ll still be a place for fine art as we understand it right now.