Beeple Breakthrough or Bubble?
By HG Masters
If you haven’t been paying attention to the emerging world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), auction house Christie’s online sale (February 25–March 11) of a digital artwork by Mike Winkelmann (aka Beeple) for USD 69.3 million might change that. Titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021), the work attracted 33 bidders and garnered the third-highest sale price ever achieved by a living artist, surpassing blue-chip modern artists such as Gerhard Richter and Jasper Johns.
In recent months, NFTs have become the latest pop cultural collectibles trend, as everything from American basketball highlights to GIFs of internet memes like Nyan the Cat have been sold as unique digital pieces, which are now collectible due to encrypted authenticity certificates that are backed by the same blockchain technology in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Beeple also issues signed physical certificates as well as samples of his own hair to collectors. His Everydays is a freshly minted digital collage JPG—of 21,069 by 21,069 pixels—consisting of 5,000 daily illustrations that Winkelmann created since May 2007, beginning with a sketch of his Uncle Jim. The series later evolved into more complex illustrations reflecting political and pop culture events in the United States. Beeple sold his first NFT in October 2020, including a pair for USD 66,666.66 each. As the NFT market rapidly expanded at the end of 2020, he sold 20 more works for a total of USD 3.5 million, and later, in February, one of those original pairs was resold for USD 6.6 million.
“I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the next chapter in art history, digital art,” Beeple said in a Christie’s statement. “This is work that has just as much craft, message, nuance and intent as anything made on a physical canvas and I am beyond honored and humbled to represent the digital art community in this historic moment.”
As internet memes attain the cultural status of artworks (and many contemporary artworks increasingly resemble internet memes), NFTs allow items of digital culture to be commoditized as objects of intense trading and speculation. The rise of NFTs in recent months corresponds with the market surge in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and for the Christie’s sale, cryptocurrencies were accepted for the first time as payment.
For auction houses, the online single-artist Beeple sale offered an opportunity to access a new audience of primarily millennial-generation collectors and techies and could be the beginning of a new luxury market category, along with toy figurines, street art, and sneakers. Whether the Beeple bubble bursts or balloons in years to come, his name will be there on the list of blockbuster artists of the 21st century.
HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.
To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.