Tracking the Timeline of NFTs in 2021

Liz Catalano
Published on

The art world gained a few new vocabulary words this year. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) broke the barrier between fringe and mainstream early on. They caused a media flurry and prompted exhaustive tutorials on how to pronounce “fungible.” As 2021 draws to a close, it is clear that NFTs are here to stay. 

How did we reach this point? Auction Daily reflects on the rise of NFTs in 2021.

Image from Pak’s The Merge drop of NFTs in 2021. Image courtesy of Nifty Gateway.
Image from Pak’s The Merge drop of NFTs in 2021. Image courtesy of Nifty Gateway.

February – March 2021

In late February of 2021, Auction Daily started with the basics. We defined digital art (“a merger of art and technology”) and NFTs (“unique cryptographically generated tokens that use blockchain technology to represent digital assets”) for the uninitiated. Yet digital art was by no means a new phenomenon. Purely computer-based artwork dates back to the 1950s, and the internet has long been a safe haven for digital artists of all persuasions. Likewise, NFTs have a history in cryptocurrency circles that started well before this year. Signs of their rise in the traditional art world began as early as October of 2020. At that time, Christie’s auctioned an NFT-linked artwork for 11 times its low estimate.

March of 2021 saw the first wave of excitement around NFTs. SuperRare and Verisart teamed up to offer notable NFTs at auction in a timed 10 x 10 series. At the time, this was expected to be a major headline for NFTs in 2021. That quickly changed. Christie’s sold Beeple’s EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS compilation for a record-setting USD 69.3 million on March 11. Bidding started at just $100. As the media speculated what the result meant for Beeple and NFTs, collectors were off to the races.

Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, 2021. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, 2021. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

April – June 2021 

Shortly after “NFTs” became a household term, their various merits and faults came under strict scrutiny. Fears of another dot-com bubble trailed behind enthusiastic bidding and somewhat speculative prices. A crash seemed possible during late spring. However, experts predicted that the high prices signaled something bigger than a fad. NFTs and cryptocurrency do not refer to a single product, but rather a conceptual buying method. 

Individual NFT artists started to stand out between April and June of this year. The digital artist (or art collective) Pak was the first to partner with Sotheby’s after the staggering Beeple result in March. Details about Pak remain scarce despite them being an extremely popular leader in NFT circles. Phillips joined hands with Michah Dowbak, better known as Mad Dog Jones, as the top auction houses vied for a piece of the digital pie.

Other issues surrounding NFTs acquired nuance during this period. As Auction Daily detailed the highs and lows of NFTs this April, we touched on their security vulnerabilities. Activists and artists also sounded the alarm about the negative environmental impact of cryptocurrency and NFTs. Their energy requirements could throw a wrench in the auction industry’s efforts to achieve environmental sustainability.

Yuga Labs, Bored Ape Yacht Club #8746, 2021. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Yuga Labs, Bored Ape Yacht Club #8746, 2021. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

July – September 2021 

The summer months brought a degree of stability to the NFT craze. They also witnessed the blurring of boundaries between the digital and physical worlds. The LA Art Show returned from its pandemic hiatus with a digital art exhibition hosted by Vellum LA, the city’s first brick-and-mortar NFT gallery. Digital artist ThankYouX teamed up with composer Hans Zimmer to create NFTs that bridged visual and audio mediums. Micah Johnson, the former MLB player-turned-artist, also used his digital artwork to build real-life opportunities for young Black children.

Elsewhere, Christie’s Hong Kong became the first international auction house to host an NFT auction in Asia. Its No Time Like Present sale sat at the intersection of several seemingly unrelated trends. Broadly, the growth of Asian art markets this year sustained auction house revenues amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Christie’s is expanding its footprint in Hong Kong and digital art auctions are a strong starting point. Additionally, the September sale tapped into the profile picture (PFP) variety of digital art, which encompasses the most ubiquitous NFTs of 2021. In an era when “firsts” can dictate revenues and “seconds” mean comparatively little, top auction houses sprinted to keep up with shifting collector tastes.

Pak, still from Rubik’s Lure, 2020. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Metaverse.
Pak, still from Rubik’s Lure, 2020. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Metaverse.

October – December 2021 

For those who still doubt the permanence of NFTs, the last few months show that this is just the beginning. Celebrities minting NFTs for social clout was one matter. The movement of professional artists into digital spaces is quite another. The nature of NFTs— as well as the language surrounding them— is a frequent point of commentary for these more traditional artists taking the technology for a drive. American artist Dread Scott interrogated the concept of fungibility in White Male for Sale. His NFT of a young white man standing atop a slavery-era auction block in Brooklyn contained layered criticism for the market to consider. 

Sotheby’s Metaverse launched in October in another aggressive step into the NFT world. This in-house digital art platform hosts dedicated NFT auctions curated by in-the-know collectors. Sotheby’s brought in $18.7 million in its first event.

Despite doubts, criticisms, and shake-ups along the way, the NFT story carries on. In early December, an open edition NFT project from Pak achieved $91.8 million on Nifty Gateway. Over 28,000 buyers made the result possible. It could potentially place Pak among the world’s most expensive living artists. That is a club Pak would share with Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and, to come full circle, Beeple.

How will NFTs evolve in 2022? Subscribe to Auction Daily to keep up with the latest updates, reviews, and analyses.

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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