Until now, digital artists creating NFT (non-fungible token) for their work have long built their reputation outside of traditional channels. They are using various NFT platforms such as OpenSea, SuperRare, and Nifty Gateway to display and sell their digital work at a fixed price or through an auction. Their digital artworks are minted (i.e. created) and tracked on the blockchain, making the art pieces safely collectible. These virtual marketplaces also allow digital artists to meet their audience and encourage more discussion and collaboration between them.
However, various digital artists began to appear on the catalog of major auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Their digital works were offered on auction dedicated to NFT and slowly gained traction on the art market. In March 2021, a digital work made up of 5,000 images created daily by the artist Beeple was purchased for $69.3 million (paid in Ether cryptocurrency) at Christie’s. It was the very first NFT sold in the history of public auctions. A month later, Sotheby’s launched its first NFT sale in collaboration with Pak, a digital artist using geometric shapes in his work. The auction generated $16.8 million in sales across 6,156 NFTs over three days. Later that year, Sotheby’s launched the Sotheby’s Metaverse, a platform dedicated to promote and sell digital art and NFT. Christie’s launched a similar platform called Christie’s 3.0 to offer auctions on the blockchain.
In parallel, more contemporary artists choose to work on their own digital projects and offer their works at auctions. They started learning the digital art process, including minting NFT and writing smart contracts. In March 2021, the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami released 108 flower images on the OpenSea platform, but removed them few days later because he failed to add a smart contract. Few months later, he resumed his project with the creation of 11,664 digital flower images, resulting from a combination of the initial 108 flower images with 108 flower patterns. The pixelated flowers are reminiscent of Japanese TV games created in the 1970s.
Some traditional artists converted their physical artworks into digital ones, or created both forms to experiment with NFT. In July 2021, Damien Hirst launched a series of 10,000 digital artworks called The Currency, available on OpenSea. The series, based on a physical artwork created in 2016, explores the boundaries between art and currency with each artwork considered as a unique interchangeable item. Until July 2022, the artist let the collectors choose between the physical artwork and the digital one. Whichever was picked, the other got destroyed. After that date, only 48% of the digital NFT were available while the rest were sold and burned in exchange of their corresponding physical artwork.
Other artists found a way to best exploit the possibilities offered by the NFT-based art such as fractional ownership, which allows multiple collectors to own parts of a digital artwork. In December 2021, the digital artist Pak released an artwork titled The Merge, which could be bought collectively. The artwork consisted of around 270,000 units that can be sold separately and available for 48 hours on Nifty Gateway. Each unit was offered at an initial price of $300 or $400, which increased by $25 every 6 hours, allowing buyers to purchase several units rather than individual copies. In the end, all units were sold to about 29,000 buyers generating $91.8 million. The project had a built-in scarcity mechanism that ensured the tokens would be less available with time, making the concept of ownership quite unusual.
Another characteristic of NFT-based art is the traceability of the ownership for each digital artwork exchanged on the blockchain. Art institutions and artists appreciate the increased security and transparency that are provided by blockchain technology. When a digital artwork is registered on the blockchain, data like its specifications, author, and ownership history are recorded in a digital ledger, and will remain unchanged thereby securing the work. Nowadays, art enthusiasts want to know the works they buy are authentic originals instead of waiting for an art authority to certify every art pieces. Thus, the control transfer created by the blockchain helps restore the balance so that everyone can access and enjoy digital artworks.