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Warhol NFTs Were Sold With $3.4M At Christie's & What Collectors Have Actually Bought

Updated: May 29, 2021

Juliette Yuan, May 28, 2021

Christie's auction, "Andy Warhol: Machine Made," closed yesterday (May 27, 2021) with a USD 3,377,500 hammer price for five NFTs minted from restored versions of Warhol's original works. During the lead up to the auction, several intense debates ensued among the involved parties, including the Warhol Foundation that provided the restored versions of Warhol's original works; Christie's that was in charge of the auction; Cory Arcangel, the artist who discovered Warhol's original digital works from the 1980s; and Arcangel’s expert colleagues from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club and the University's Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry lead by Golan Levin, who assisted Arcangel to restore Warhol's original works. Their arguments centered principally around the authenticity and the actual value of these NFTs, and how they should have been presented and sold by Christie's.

Owing to complex technical difficulties, the five NFTs sold at Christie's were not minted directly from Warhol's original works but their restored and modified versions. The Warhol Foundation stated that collectors were buying "the best representation of Warhol's digital works.” When NFT is involved, everything becomes more complicated. It would be easier for collectors to understand edition works, but how are they supposed to interpret the term "representation" in an art auction context, especially a modified representation? How to evaluate such a representation of other historical masterpieces in the future? Shall we continue selling this type of representation in the future, as NFT or formal artwork?

The Foundation clarified that there was "no question of authorship in this matter and to suggest otherwise is irresponsible and wrong. […] The original drawings are not for sale; each of the five NFTs points to a restored and preserved file, which retains all of the artistry of Warhol's Amiga compositions in a digital file format that can be accessed by modern computers." Format and resolution of the imagery play decisive roles in the authenticity of digital artworks and define their value for collection. Following this standard: the five NFTs sold at Christie's have no sustainable relationship to the original works created by Warhol in the mid-1980s. The only connection between them and Warhol's original works is the latter's "artistry," not the works themselves. Strictly speaking, these NFTs should be considered independent of Warhol's original works. The collectors were bidding on some high-res images that carried Warhol's name, but their real value was no different from a vintage Louis Vuitton bag auctioned at Christie's. The market value of these NFTs is based on the aura of Warhol's brand, their prestigious provenance (the Warhol Foundation), and their digital certificate that secured their authenticity and uniqueness, only as NFTs.

Golan Levin and his colleagues probably would not have felt so nonplussed if they could understand NFTs as a new chapter of new media art. It seems that the value system of NFTs is founded on celebrity culture and financial market indices rather than historical, aesthetic, and philosophical meanings of the new media art. We've been avoiding the term "digital art" in the place of "new media art" as it can make things even more complicated. In reality, digital art did not begin with NFTs, either with Warhol, David Hockney, Beeple, Pak, or Mad Dog Jones. None of them can be named "pioneer artists" in digital art history. Both art professionals and collectors specialized in digital art know well that artistic experimentation in the analog to digital movement traces back to the mid-1960s. The series of projects initiated by Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Yvonne Rainer's association, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), with engineers from Bell Lab, was considered a historical event that connected artists and scientists for the first time in both art and technology histories. Between the mid-1960s to the present, several generations of artists, engineers, software designers, technology nerds, and scientists have contributed to the evolution of digital art history worldwide. Their collective effort made digital art an independent art discipline. And together with some dedicated curators, museums, galleries, and collectors, they also cultivated a market to support the artists' survival. It's not difficult to find dozens of materials to read online if one is keen to learn and understand digital art history and the real pioneers in this field.

ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)

Untitled (Self-Portrait)

token ID: 3190

wallet address: 0xfc1e8a007f83d197e7cd5e04408f0e3a33ab9747

smart contract address: 0xabEFBc9fD2F806065b4f3C237d4b59D9A97Bcac7

non-fungible token (tif)

4500 x 6000 pixels

Executed circa 1985 and minted in 2021.

[Screenshot from Christie's]

While the definition, nature, and the value of the five NFTs on Christie's "Andy Warhol: Machine Made" auction are somehow confusing, the five NFTs were sold with satisfying prices at Christie's auction, for the purpose of supporting the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The debates between NFTs and the traditional digital art worlds are still not solved. Those who acquired the five NFTs will retain some high-resolution pictures under Warhol's name, but will not enjoy any sustainable relationship with any of Warhol's original works. In most cases, technically speaking, an artwork's representation can be either an edition or a copy. In the current case, since the five NFTs were not minted directly from Warhol's original works, they are neither editions nor copies. They are high-resolution pictures with digital certificates, which are named NFTs.

This morning (May 28, 2021, 10:30 AM, New York time), the Revolver Gallery (West Hollywood, CA) released a PR press article announcing the winning bid of its owner, Ron Rivlin, for Warhol’s Untitled (Self-Portrait) NFT. Congratulations to the collector! Meantime, Mr. Rivlin's statement over his acquisition is interesting to read: “NFT art sales seems to overshadow what’s more important: the artwork itself. Even if it was auctioned as a printed version of the actual artwork, I would have bought it, but I do love that it is being represented and transacted in the medium it was created in. An original digital file of an artwork composed by Warhol when home computers and software were both archaic and elementary. I have to say, I think his effort was a successful one. I’m proud to show it off and have it as part of our collection.” In any case, Mr. Rivlin’s NFT collection will remain a high-resolution picture with no direct relation to “the artwork itself” (we assume that Mr. Rivlin refers to Warhol’s original work here). It isn’t and will never be “a printed version of the actual artwork” either. This NFT will only remain an NFT with Warhol’s aura, which is shiny enough to overshadow all flaws in the sale.

In terms of the market value of NFTs: the blockchain platforms' survivability is controlled by the cryptocurrency market. The latter requires the global financial market's acknowledgment (where China currently plays a crucial role) and each country's attitude and policies. The American Families Plan championed by the Biden Administration intends to tackle tax evasion and require virtual transactions of more than $10,000 to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Businesses that receive crypto assets with a fair market value of more than $10,000 would be required to report the crypto assets to the IRS, which the U.S. Treasury Department said is necessary as "compliance rates exceed 95 percent when the IRS can verify taxpayer filings with third-party information reports." Meanwhile, the price of bitcoin fell 5% after Biden announced his plan, following China's regulatory crackdown on cryptocurrencies a day earlier.

The future of cryptocurrency remains unclear and is full of uncertainty, which directly influences the value of NFTs. For the moment, whether NFTs are an asset for long-term investors to consider or not is still in debate. NFTs and digital art are being redefined regularly. When NFT involves in historical masterpieces sales, in digital art or traditional art, Levin's words are always worth being considered by both the art world and the newly emerged industry: "At what point is it no longer the original file? If Christie's were incredibly orthodox about it, they would be offering the unreadable Amiga file - you'll get the hash of the Amiga file, and you'll get a PNG of the original image so you can see what it looks like, and you'll get a high-resolution version that you can use as an exhibition copy, and we'll throw in an Amiga monitor so you can display it exactly the way that Warhol would have seen it."




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