Editor's Note, March 11, 2021: An entirely digital artwork sold at auction today for $69.3 million, Christie’s announced via Twitter. Per the New York Times’ Scott Reyburn, the sale marks the third-highest auction price achieved by a living artist, placing Beeple after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
Read more about the record-breaking artwork—and its implication for the art world—below.
It goes without saying that most works of art consist of a physical component, whether it be paint applied to a canvas or the threads that make up a tapestry. But Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a new mosaic of drawings by contemporary artist Beeple, exists exclusively as digital images and lines of code.
Christie’s is set to auction this unique artwork in an online sale running from February 25 to March 11. Per a statement, Everydays will be the first entirely digital piece of art sold by a major auction house.
“In short,” writes Mickey Rapkin for Esquire, “an auction house founded in London in 1766 [is] about to sell a JPEG.”
The artist better known as Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a 39-year-old graphic designer from Charleston, South Carolina. Winkelmann has developed a fast-rising reputation in the art world for his bizarre, irreverent and sometimes-grotesque caricatures of politics, pop culture and world events, all of which are posted on his popular Instagram account. He has previously created concert visuals for Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, among other celebrities.
Because digital art is relatively new territory for Christie’s, the auction house has declined to provide an estimated price for the artwork. Bidding will open at $100.
For context, Winkelmann’s art has already attracted a number of deep-pocketed buyers. Last December, for instance, an auction of 21 single edition works—including an illustration of Tom Hanks beating the coronavirus—garnered $3.5 million, according to Chris Williams of Crypto Briefing.
Auctioning off a digital-only work is a tricky process. As Anny Shaw explains for the Art Newspaper, Beeple’s work will be sold as an NFT, or non-fungible token. Unique and indivisible, these “crypto collectible” digital files function as a permanent record of authenticity and ownership, preventing specific works from being downloaded and replicated, as Joel Comm reported for the Grit Daily last November.
Whoever places the winning bid on Everydays will receive an encrypted file confirming their ownership of the artwork. That transaction will be recorded permanently in the blockchain. Because all blockchain transactions are visible to the public, items purchased this way cannot be easily “stolen” in the way that a person might download the MP3 of a song and reproduce it illegally.
“I use the example of a physical trading card,” Ryoma Ito, head of marketing at MakersPlace, a crypto art marketplace that collaborated with Christie’s to facilitate the auction, tells Forbes’ Jesse Damiani. “They’re accessible by the millions, but when, say, Steph Curry comes along and autographs one of those cards it will increase the value as long as there’s a way to authenticate that signature.”
Ito adds, “When a creator publishes to blockchain, they’re permanently associating their signature with that piece. It’s just a digital signature rather than a physical autograph.”
After the sale, anyone with an internet connection will be able to log onto MakersPlace and see who owns the work’s NFT, according to the statement.
Noah Davis, post-war and contemporary art specialist for Christie’s, acknowledges in the statement that the auction house has never offered “a new media artwork of this scale or importance before.”
Speaking with the Art Newspaper, Davis adds that NFT art objects appeal to “audiences who are tech-savvy and singularly focused on digital art, as well as collectors who have long been drawn to the cutting-edge of art in new media.”
Everydays is composed of 5,000 of Winkelmann’s digital artworks, which he created daily over a 13-year period (May 1, 2007, to January 7, 2021). The semi-diaristic compositions started out small—an image of a sketch of his uncle, for instance—but morphed over the years into comical, surprising works that take aim at American politicians and memorialize such experiences as an agonizing bout of food sickness in 2014 and the events of the 2020 vice presidential debates.
“I almost look at it now like I’m a political cartoonist,” says Winkelmann in the statement. “Except instead of doing sketches, I’m using the most advanced [3-D] tools to make comments on current events, almost in real-time.”
In a separate Christie’s statement, the artist says that he believes the art world will soon witness an “explosion” of new artwork and new collectors interested in digital art.
“[T]his is a truly historic moment not just for digital art, but for the entire fine art world,” Winkelmann adds. “The technology is now at a place with the blockchain to be able to prove ownership and have true scarcity with digital artwork.”