On Thursday, Christie's auction house sold an NFT collection of digital artwork by Beeple for $69,346,250. That makes it not only one of the biggest art sales ever, but the third largest sale by a living artist, and the largest NFT sale ever.
NFTs are non-fungible tokens, meaning that each one is unique and thus "non-fungible." What this means is that artists can mint unique, limited-run tokens on top of blockchains such as Ethereum, where ownership of the tokens is recorded permanently. NFTs have exploded recently, with tokenized JPEGs, GIFs, sports highlights, tweets, and even one audio sex tape selling for eye-popping amounts of money.
Digital artist Mike Winkelmann—AKA Beeple—is one of the most popular and now most moneyed NFT creators. In December, he sold a collection of 20 NFT pieces for over $3.5 million on Nifty Gateway, a platform created for trading NFTs by the Bitcoin whale Winklevoss twins. In February, a Beeple artwork that was bought for $66,666.66 in October traded hands for $6.6 million.
EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS is a collection of all the works Winkelmann has posted online since May 1, 2007—5,000 pieces of digital art for 5,00 days since then. Bidding opened on February 25 at $100, but the bids quickly climbed into the millions. The winning bidder paid the huge sum in ether, the token of the Ethereum blockchain.
To many, the sale represents the apex of a speculative bubble around NFTs, which have faced criticism for being more about making a huge profit than art or technology. But Beeple is not worried.
"I do think there is somewhat of a bubble, to be quite honest," Winkelmann said in an interview with the Observer. "It’s something that I was actually fairly worried about for a while, and now I’m not worried about it at all. I really compare this to the early days of the Internet, because I think this technology is such a blank slate, I look at it kind of like a webpage. You could use a webpage for a billion different things, and we’re still figuring out new uses for them. And NFTs are so simple; it’s literally just proving ownership of something on the Internet. I think that has a huge amount of uses that we have barely scratched the surface of.”
Beyond the speculative concerns, critics have pointed to the carbon footprint of the Ethereum blockchain that underlies NFT creation. Moreover, theft is a part of the NFT ecosystem, with people minting and selling artworks that they did not create, and tweets that they did not make.
“The only viable option is total moral rejection,” digital artist Everest Pipkin wrote in a piece about NFTs on Medium. “Anything less (selling, collecting, posting links to artists selling NFTs, yes even trying to find a less ecologically devastating model) holds up the power of the worst parts of this platform. It grants moral grayzone—an ‘oh, if my favorite artist is involved, maybe it isn’t so bad?’ or a ‘but I know this person cares for the environment and they participate—maybe they know something I don’t?’”
The criticism isn’t going away as the NFT market heats up, but neither is the allure of blockchain proofs to some collectors, or the promise of money to be made to speculators.