Before NFTs upended the art world, the artist Yves Klein sold nothing in exchange for solid gold. One of the key figures of the nouveau réalisme (New Realism) movement, Klein was a pioneer of conceptual art. Between 1959 and his death in 1962, he made one of the most outrageous artistic statements of his career, selling a series of receipts for invisible “zones” and accepting payment only in gold bullion. Now, six decades later, one of those receipts has sold for over $1 million at auction.
Though Klein sold numerous receipts for Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, few exist today. That’s because he encouraged his buyers to burn them—part of a ritual in which buyers asserted themselves as the “definitive owners” of their purchased “zone.” As part of the ritual, Klein would dump half the payment into the Seine while burning the receipt in the presence of witnesses.
Antiques dealer Jacques Kugel was the original owner of the receipt in question and is believed to be one of the few who didn’t burn the evidence of their purchase, reports Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe. The receipt has been shown at major European cultural institutions like London’s Hayward Gallery and Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Former gallery owner Loïc Malle eventually bought the piece, then put it up for auction along with over 100 other items from his private collection.
CNN’s Oscar Holland writes that the receipt, which is less than eight inches wide, was designed to look like a banker’s check. Signed by Klein and dated December 7, 1959, the piece of paper gives the recipient ownership of a Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle.
“Some have likened the transfer of a zone of sensitivity and the invention of receipts as an ancestor of the NFT, which itself allows the exchange of immaterial works,” Sotheby’s wrote in its auction catalog. “If we add that Klein kept a register of the successive owners of the ‘zones,’ it is easy to find here another revolutionary concept—the ‘blockchain.’”
To pay homage to that connection, the auction house accepted—for the first time ever—cryptocurrency payments for the artwork. The sale far surpassed the initial estimated range of $300,000 to $550,000; after fees, the buyer will pay $1.2 million. According to Sotheby’s, the buyer was a “private European collector” and it’s “too early to say” whether they’ll pay in crypto.
Klein put the gold that wasn’t thrown into the Seine to good use. He used some for his Monogolds series and enclosed gold leaf from the first four sales in an anonymous reliquary devoted to St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes. He gave the offering to nuns at an Italian convent devoted to the saint. The nuns kept the work of art anonymous until a 1979 earthquake destroyed the convent’s historic frescoes. When they showed the reliquary, and the gold inside of it, to a painter, he soon identified the work as Klein’s.
Known for his 1960 photograph Leap into the Void, a composite of two separate images that showed the artist falling from a tall wall, Klein pushed the boundaries of viewers’ perceptions of reality in his art. His “zone” receipts were a continuation of an earlier work he called The Void— a white-washed, empty room in a Parisian gallery.
“I wished to create, establish, and present to the public a sensible pictorial state within the confines of a picture gallery,” he said in 1959. “In other words, I sought to create an ambiance, a pictorial climate that is invisible but present.”