Christie's, Blockchain, and the Future of Digital Art Collecting

Updated: Feb 24

By Juliette Yuan. February 24, 2021. New York.



From February 25 to March 11, Christie's will auction a purely digital work with the unique NFT (Non-fungible token), Everydays: The First 5000 Days by Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, a graphic designer from Charleston, South Carolina, at its first single lot sale. Minted exclusively for the auction, Everydays is a digital collage of 5000 images that Winkelmann created day by day and published online between May 1, 2007, and January 7, 2021. Christie's will accept cryptocurrency at this sale in addition to traditional forms of payment. Along with the sale opening, the art world, since its big move from the physical world to cyberspace following the COVID-19 outbreak, will shift its focus this time from cyberspace to the encrypted blockchain platforms.


Screenshot from Christie's official website. Copyright Christie's New York.



A Brief History of Art on Blockchain + NTF (Non-fungible token) at Christie's

In the mainstream art world, Christie's was the first to launch the discussion and projects with blockchain. In 2018, Christie's hosted its 1st Art and Technology Summit around blockchain. The event was followed by two auction sales - (1) the Ebsworth family collection in collaboration with the blockchain-based registry Artory and (2) the original piece of CryptoKitty digital art created by artist Guilherme Twardowski, which sold for $140,000. Beginning more than two years ago at the end of 2018, a series of thoughtful discussions and business endeavors was initiated at Art Basel Miami, on Artsy, as well as in selected art galleries in Europe. A blockchain ecosystem began building around art, encouraging artists to explore the technology's potential to support their lives and careers with a sustainable market backed by the NFT industry.

In October 2020, at the end of a week-long exhibition of Christie's auctioned works in New York, the first NTF artwork created by London-based artist Benjamin Gentilli was sold for $130K as part of the Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction. "Aside from the creative inspiration artists can draw from the cryptocurrencies' complex cultural, technical, and politically dynamic history, NFTs can also give artists more control and a better stake in their practice over the long term," Benjamin Gentilli observed in an interview with cointelegraph.com. Because the NFTs are unique, an important contribution they made to the art world is to solve the issues such as ownership, authorship, and rarity for both artists and collectors. This is a life-changing game, especially for the digital art community where these issues have always been considered a significant obstacle to art collecting. The Smart Contract on blockchain platforms allows artists to write their terms and gain a profit margin from every sale that happens after their initial sale, including those on the secondary market. For collectors, paying in cryptocurrency allows them to acquire a fraction of their beloved artwork so that anyone with a little bit of financial investment can own a masterpiece that they could never otherwise afford on their own.

Definitions


Blockchain

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp

Cryptocurrency

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cryptocurrency.asp

NTFs (non-fungible tokens) https://www.gemini.com/cryptopedia/nft-non-fungible-token-crypto-collectibles



Beeple Everydays Collection on Nifty Gateway blockchain marketplace. Screenshot from Nifty Gateway official website.

Copyright Beeple & Nifty Gateway.



Beeple and His Crypto Art


Before he received Christie's invitation, Beeple (or Mike Winkelmann) was already a self-made celebrity in the graphic design industry with millions of followers on social media and a multimillion-dollar revenue on niftygateway.com marketplace. Artists usually rely on art galleries, fairs, and auction houses to increase their prices on the art market. Now, for the first time in the history of the art business, the blockchain marketplace seems to offer artists the magic power of "skipping" art dealers to make a successful career with crypto art. In Winkelmann's case, the entire process took only two months (from the moment he made his first "drops" to the moment his 21 single editions were sold out for $13.5M). Is this true?


It would not be cautious for us to jump to this conclusion without first taking a closer look at Winkelmann, his crypto art, and what it takes for him to make it.

Post-Apocalyptic Art Aesthetics and the Life Vision of a Generation


Collectors with a taste for David Hockney paintings might feel uncomfortably overwhelmed and lost observing Winkelmann's images for the first time. Death, violence, absurdity, monstrosity, darkness, mischief, ugliness, distortions, war, alienation. Regardless of the cultural references and narratives, all of Winkelmann's images are created with a dark and cynical sense of humor in a cartoonish and futurist tone; many of them reflect the time we are living in and the political and social currents we are now experiencing. In the past 13.5 years, Winkelmann has created one image of this kind and published it on his social media platforms every day. In his interview with theverge.com, he described these images as "a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by Hillary Clinton / Donald Trump cyborgs, Michael Jackson host wombs, and everything in between."


Beeple, Everydays, Spongebob Hillary Pants. 2020.

Screenshot from Beeple Everydays Collection on Nifty Gateway blockchain marketplace.

Screenshot from Nifty Gateway official website.

Copyright Beeple & Nifty Gateway.



Post-apocalyptic art surges during times of environmental, sociopolitical, and technological anxiety. It usually interprets how the world will end, explores what life is like after some form of a great cataclysm, mostly caused by human beings. The world depicted by this type of art looks like a macabre mix of Hollywood disaster and sci-fi films. It transports us to a fictional and distant future. In reality, however, the artists insist that we contemplate the present.

The 2020 pandemic with its political and social turbulence deteriorated people's resentment against the uncertainty and the edgy situation they had to live through day-by-day. One of the reasons that Winkelmann's work could generate millions of followers on social media probably has as much to do with the messages he kept sending to them through his visual elements in order to help them express the same vision and feelings about the world they were living in. However, Winkelmann seems to have no intention to label himself as a leader or activist in any movement. Nor does he look at the world through a pessimistic lens. "I’m not somebody who thinks the world is ending. Everything’s just going to turn to shit, and we’re going to be huddled on the ground, eating fricking mud 20 years from now." Many of the visuals he made are just "something funny so we can look at how ridiculous and extreme some of the things we're already doing are." Without wanting to be the pro- of anything, Winkelmann views his 13.5 year-long daily art practice with an attitude of no-big-fuss: "I look at it more like brushing your teeth. You don't have a big ritual around it; you just go in and brush your teeth."

As someone interested in politics and technology, the power dynamics between those two as well as between technology and society, Winkelman seems to be concerned by a future society dominated by overly consumed-pop culture and technology: "What if, in the future, you could buy a Baby Yoda puppy, and it knew to play with kids. But then it got screwed up, and it got confused, and the algorithm got messed up, and it started eating kids, and it got stray, and there were these attacks of stray Baby Yoda robots that used to be toys, but they got so much AI in the future that they got loose, and they’re fricking eating kids."


Screenshot from The Verge magazine's official website.

Illustration to the article Beeple on creating a zombie Mark Zuckerberg and flesh-eating Baby Yoda to examine the times

by Avery White on Jan 3rd, 2020. Copyright Beeple & The Verge.



What It Takes for Winkelmann to Become Beeple

In his interview with Cgsociety.org, Winkelmann admitted that he didn't start incorporating narratives and composition into his digital drawings and animations until the 10th year of his Everydays project. Giving thoughts to his work made him turn from a designer into a real artist. Coming from a computer science background, Winkelmann naturally started working as a graphic designer and learned to manipulate dozens of new software and apps along the way. Cinema 4D, After Effects, ZBrush, Octane and V-Ray, 3D coat. Keep learning has always been the main idea on Winkelmann's mind. It wasn't until 2015, the 10th anniversary of his Everydays project that he found the theme for his creation. His visuals since then took the tone of sci-fi by focusing on compositions and environments.


Winkelmann is described by friends, colleagues, and those close to his work as "a generous artist" who is always open about his practice, his process; a fearless person who is "no stranger to vulgarity or twisted humor, and he’s deeply invested in his community." Being one of the millennials born into the online culture, Winkelmann embodies a deep understanding of his time and the power and advantages that the online culture can bring to him as a creator. In his own words: "Exposure is a real currency."



Beeple Everydays Collectors' package on Nifty Gateway blockchain marketplace.

Screenshot from Nifty Gateway official website.

Copyright Beeple & Nifty Gateway.


In his interview with motionhatch.com, Winkelmann explained his strategy of getting maximum visibility online and the value he received from sharing his VJ visual clips as open-source materials with anyone visiting his website. "Very early on I recognized that the clips would be more valuable as a promotional tool than selling them directly." Sharing is important, knowing how to protect his work is the key. Most of Winkelmann's work has been released free ONLY under Creative Commons. The protection system is not only set for his work but also for the collectors who invest in his work. All collectors are protected by a login system on his website. It's important not to lose sight of the fact that Winkelmann is originally from the computer science field.


What truly differentiates Winkelmann from most other creators is that he is extremely open to sharing the failures in his practice. "He makes a variety of art crap across a variety of media. Some of it is OK, but a lot of it kind of blows ass. He's working on making it suck less every day though so bear with him...:)." Winkelmann defines himself with such a description at the bottom of his website's homepage. This carefree and no-big-fuss attitude is against not only the creators' nature but also human nature protecting ourselves by hiding our worst and the weakest part from the outside world. "Looking at creativity as something that’s much less precious will help you stick with it long-term. [...] Like you’re not so pretentious in terms of, 'I’m an artist, I need to blah blah blah.' If you take it down a notch and just look at it as something you have to do today, just like taking a dump or eating supper, then it will be more sustainable in the long run." Fully embrace himself and the act of creating, being authentic, and vulnerable with the outside world helped Winkelmann win the biggest prize for the time he is living in. Besides, he also is very disciplined with investing and saving money to create freedom and options in his business. We can only say that he knows who he is, what he wants, and how to get where he wants to be truly well.


Beeple Everydays Collection on Nifty Gateway blockchain marketplace.

These were the most expensive bids that made Beeple a multimillionaire artist on blockchain in December 2020.

Screenshot from Nifty Gateway official website.

Copyright Beeple & Nifty Gateway.



The Value System of Beeple's Crypto Art

“When Mozart came around, the idiom and the vocabulary of classical music was at its height and ready for his genius. He came into the golden era of the genre, and he was Mozart; [Crypto Art] was a building movement—and Beeple’s a giant."

"Warhol’s fascination with heroes and heroines, pop icons and tragedy, death and disaster—that truly morbid fascination—you see that in a lot of Beeple’s work too, especially when he's dealing with pop culture icons, whether that’s Jeff Bezos or Kim Jong-un or Buzz Lightyear. They are all equally accessible targets and interesting points just to plot on a map, he is very similar to Warhol in that way.” (Christie's)


Social Value


A media reports describes Winkelmann as a new spokesperson of American self-made culture, an icon of his and younger generations. Winkelmann made a significant impact on his and younger generations as a social figure. 1.8M followers on Instagram, 195.3K on Twitter, 40.3K on YouTube… He is also a highly demanded graphic designer that has worked on numerous commission projects for celebrities in the entertainment field in the US and luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Nike. These achievements attest to how successful Winkelmann's self-branding and marketing have been to create significant social value for himself and his community in less than two decades.


Beeple's work on Louis Vuitton Fashion Show.

Screenshot from https://www.schoolofmotion.com/blog/beeple-louis-vuitton

Copyright School Of Motion.


Market Value


Many details in Winkelmann's business operation reveal that he is highly disciplined and strategic in self-branding in both his sales and facing his clients. Art items like NFT and blockchain products can be extremely profitable if they are marketed and promoted properly. Winkelmann proved to be adept at how "properly" he could do with the marketing and sales of his work on the niftygateway.com marketplace. His self-branding awareness is also shown through the package of his physical tokens for his collectors. The package box is impeccably sophisticated in design. Each edition of his works is framed with plexiglass, accompanied by a signed Certificate of Authenticity and his hair sample - a surprise that melts every collector's heart. It is the best demonstration of his work's rarity and high value for the collectors, regardless of whether the edition is priced $1, $969, or $3.5M.


In December 2020, Winkelmann created the highest market value for crypto art on the niftygateway.com blockchain marketplace: $3.5 million. Because of differences between crypto and physical currencies, between blockchain platforms and the traditional art market, it is difficult to evaluate Winkelmann's art in the real world until Christie's closes its sales. We will be eager to learn of the final hammer price for Winkelmann's monumental digital collage. In the meantime, Winkelmann's success is the best demonstration of the untapped potential of the blockchain marketplace supporting visual artists and creators to achieve financial success. The art world now has a new market and evaluation system to explore as complementary to the current art market ruled by art galleries, fairs, and auction houses. Along with Christie's validation of crypto art, the art world might consider that it's time to redefine the meaning of digital art and artist, as well as the value of art.


Beeple - Mike Winkelmann. Screenshot from Beeple official website. Copyright Beeple.



Blockchain and Its Future Marketplace for Digital Art Collecting


As mentioned previously, artists usually rely on art galleries, fairs, and auction houses to increase their prices on the art market. With Winkelmann's success on niftygateway.com, one may tend to think that the blockchain-backed marketplace can support the artists to achieve their career goals in total control and freedom without the aid of the traditional art world. Is that true? In our opinion, not necessarily.


The blockchain marketplace can provide many unprecedented advantages to the digital artists that the traditional art world cannot offer: the encryptions, the smart contract, the certified rarity of each edition work, the transparency of the ownership and transactions, increasing (or decreasing) value of the cryptocurrency, and the most important, the passive income for the artists from each of their work sales including those on the secondary market. Not to mention the growing collector community that gathers the wealthiest people from the finance and technology worlds. However, until blockchain technology finds its way to support the entire traditional art world to operate within its ecosystem, its marketplace can never fully provide the key value that artists need for their work as well as for their career: their status in art history, and the academic acknowledgment that makes them a legacy and their art a heritage to human society.


The blockchain marketplace can assist artists to trade their work to reach financial success and become seen by the world. It may also provide a price reference for the art galleries and auction houses to use when discussing their representation or consignment agreements with the artists. Can the blockchain marketplace replace art galleries, fairs, and auction houses to promote artists? We sincerely doubt it. The blockchain marketplace will probably remain the complementary marketplace to the art world, working with the art world to improve its ecosystem without replacing it. So long as artists want to stay true to their mission - to be the leaders of human souls - they must learn to win the battle in the complex art world as it exists now.


In terms of digital art collecting, there is no difference between collecting in the blockchain marketplace and in the conventional art world. It all comes back to the criteria for fine artworks and collectibles, and the difference between an art buyer and an art collector. Blockchain certainly provides a perfect environment for people to collect digital art but keep in mind that it takes considerable time, energy, and patience for one to learn and understand what is worth investing in digital art and how the blockchain marketplace functions. Before you feel overly confident about your knowledge and experience, our suggestion is to make a serious commitment to the learning process and consult artists, gallerists, art advisors, and art consultants as often as possible to acquire sufficient knowledge and experience. The great news is: your time and effort will not be wasted. In fact, there is even a good chance that they will be extraordinarily well rewarded.




Juliette Yuan is an art consultant based in New York. She is also the founder of Juliette Yuan & Associates LLC art consulting firm.


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References:

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/18/christies-to-auction-beeple-nft-art-and-will-accept-ether-as-payment.html

[2] https://www.auctionity.com/blockchain-technology-is-shaping-the-art-world-through-non-fungible-tokens/

[3] https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/christies-art-technology-summit-blockchain

[4] https://cointelegraph.com/news/christies-to-sell-its-first-non-fungible-token-as-part-of-epic-bitcoin-artwork

[5] https://www.crowdfundinsider.com/2020/10/167741-nfts-block-21-sells-for-over-130k-at-christies/

[6] niftygateway.com

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessedamiani/2021/02/16/from-crypto-to-christies-how-beeple-put-digital-art-on-the-map-and-then-catalyzed-its-market/?sh=56557b126a06

[8] https://cgsociety.org/news/article/3249/beeple-s-everydays-turn-ten

[9] https://observer.com/2020/12/net-artist-beeple-nifty-gateway-auction-record/

[10] https://www.artnews.com/art-news/market/christies-beeple-blockchain-art-sale-1234583847/

[11] https://makersplace.com/beeple/5000-days/ [12] https://www.schoolofmotion.com/blog/beeple-louis-vuitton [13] https://unchainedpodcast.com/beeple-on-how-and-why-he-raked-in-3-5-million/ [14] https://www.visitlasvegas.com/alteryourreality/beeple/ [15] https://motionhatch.com/episode-50-how-to-create-freedom-to-work-on-personal-projects-w-beeple


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