Category Spotlight: Digital Art at Auction

Nazia Safi
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Traditionally, an artwork uses a physical component, be it a carved piece of stone or paint applied to a canvas. Auction houses have sold and distributed these traditional art forms for centuries. However, with the rapid expansion of technology and the crypto art market, auction houses are moving into the realm of digital art. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have opened novel ways for digital art to be sold at auction.

For the first time in its history, Christie’s will auction a purely digital, NFT-based artwork by a digital artist. Titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days (starting bid: USD 100), the pixilated work by Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, exists only as digital images. The vast collage includes 5,000 digital artworks created every day over 13 years, from 2007 to 2021.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT, 21,069 pixels x 21,069 pixels (316,939,910 bytes). Image by Christie's.
Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT, 21,069 pixels x 21,069 pixels (316,939,910 bytes). Image by Christie’s.

The work will go under the hammer as a standalone lot concurrent with Christie’s First Open online event, which runs from February 25th, 2021 to March 11th, 2021. Before the bidding begins, Auction Daily answers some questions about digital art and NFTs at auction.

What is digital art?

The term ‘digital art’ describes a range of artistic works and practices that use computer-based digital encoding as an essential part of the creative and/ or presentation process. It is a merger of art and technology. The term was first used in the early 1980s by British artist Harold Cohen, who pioneered the AARON computer painting program.

However, experimentation and innovation with computer art and animation began in the early 1950s. These early digital works mostly comprised algorithmic drawings of artist-written code. Kenneth Knowlton (1931 – present) and Leon Harmon (1922 – 1983) created one of the first digital works of art in 1966. While working for Bell Laboratories, the duo produced a pixelated, half-tone image from a photograph. By the late 1960s, several artists began experimenting with multimedia art using computers, television, video, and other items.

When the internet was born in the 1990s, digital art continued to grow. Artists often combined multiple digital and media systems to create complex and engaging works.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie's.
Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie’s.

What is a non-fungible token (NFT)?

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are unique cryptographically generated tokens that use blockchain technology to represent digital assets. Digital assets could represent various commodities such as artwork and gaming collectibles. Each NFT is one-of-a-kind and non-replicable. When an NFT-backed artwork goes up for sale, the buyer purchases a unique token encrypted with the artist’s signature and the artwork linked to it. Blockchain, a decentralized database, registers the transaction between the artist and the buyer. This process verifies the authenticity of the work and its rightful owner.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie's.
Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie’s.

According to Christie’s, “the buyer receives the artwork file containing a digital signature from the artist and all vital details including time of creation, edition size and a record of any prior sales.” The buyer can then use the artwork or sell it, but it can’t be traded. This way, the artist’s authorship remains protected, enabling a potential secondary market.

The payment for such works of art is generally made in cryptocurrencies. Christie’s will foray into cryptocurrency with this sale. Bloomberg reported that Christie’s will accept Ether (ETH), the Ethereum network’s currency, as a payment mode for Everydays.

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie's.
Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT. Image by Christie’s.

How often do digital artworks hit auction blocks?

Phillips pioneered the digital art auction in 2013 when it partnered with Tumblr, a social media platform that creates and distributes digital art. The event, consisting of 20 digital art items, realized $90,600. The show garnered much attention among new collectors.

Since then, the digital art market has been on the rise. In 2018, Christie’s became the first auction house to use blockchain technology in a sale. The auction house teamed up with blockchain-secured art registry service Artory for its Barney A. Ebsworth Collection of American Modernism sale, totaling $317,801,250 digitally. The event was an enormous success and boasted a 98% sell-through rate by lot.

The same year, Christie’s sold an artwork created via artificial intelligence by Obvious, a Paris-based collective. Titled Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, the digital piece belonged to a group of portraits of the fictional Belamy family. It sold for $432,500. Recently, the house auctioned its first-ever NFT-linked artwork, Robert Alice’s Block 21, in October of 2020. The work sold for a record $131,250, almost 11 times above its low estimate.

Robert Alice, Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) (from Portraits of a Mind), 2019. Image by Christie's.
Robert Alice, Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) (from Portraits of a Mind), 2019. Image by Christie’s.

“Not unlike the advent of Street Art as a blue chip collecting category, NFT-based art is on the threshold of becoming the next ingeniously disruptive force in the art market,” Noah Davis, a specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, said in a statement. “Christie’s is proud to be in the vanguard of this exhilarating movement.”

Christie’s Beeple | The First 5000 Days sale will start on February 25th, 2021 and close at 10:00 AM EST on March 11th, 2021. Visit Christie’s website for more information and to place a bid.

Are you interested in other category spotlights? Read Auction Daily’s coverage of outsider art at auction, including information about the category, average prices, key artists, and a buying guide.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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