As Sotheby’s London announced this week that it will auction an NFT of the original source code for the World Wide Web, NFTs might, after all, be more than a short-lived craze.
Offered by British computer scientist and father of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, the original time-stamped files containing the source code will be sold along with a more than 30-minute animated visualisation, a letter Berners-Lee wrote about the process of creating the code, and a digital poster of the work featuring a graphic of Berners-Lee’s signature. The source code stretches over approximately 9,555 lines and is written in languages invented by Berners-Lee: HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), and URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers). This is a hugely significant as the World Wide Web is probably one of the most significant inventions of the modern age.
Blockchain technology has been around since 2008. Yet, until recently, there seemed to be consensus in the art world that technology’s attempts to disrupt the art market had failed. Then came 2020. The blighted year oversaw the explosion of online consumption, the revival of Bitcoin, (and with it, prominent new cheerleaders like Elon Musk), as well as a boost in corporate investment in Blockchain start-ups. All of these factors contributed to the demystification of Blockchain. The technology emancipated itself from prejudice of basement crypto-anarchists using untraceable currencies for nefarious purposes and re-kindled corporate interest and discussions around its myriad potential uses.
Still, Beeple’s record-breaking $69.3 million (£50 million) NFT sale of The First 5,000 Days in March of this year, came as a bombshell to most. Since then, Blockchain has been the word on everyone’s lips and a new technological revolution, similar to that of the emergence of the internet in the early 90’s, may be underway. In this fast-paced and often confusing new environment, many may ask themselves what to make of all of this.
What is Blockchain?
Blockchain is a specific architecture of distributed ledger technology (“DLT”). This means that it is a decentralised digital database that can be viewed and operated from multiple locations and devices without a central authority. Information is stored in units of data (“blocks”) that are annexed to one another to form the append-only database (“chain”). Each authorised entity of the network holds an identical copy of the Blockchain, which is updated whenever new information is added to the ledger. This allows for impeccable audit-trails, complete transparency, and real-time tracking of any transactional activity in the network.
Access to a Blockchain is either public or private and the ability to participate, for instance by validating information added to the ledger, is either permissioned (i.e. limited to a closed group of people) or permissionless (open to anyone). To ensure that information can only be viewed or processed by the intended entities, Blockchain uses cryptography, a mathematical method of secure communication through computer code that can conceal and reveal information.
Blockchain’s decentralised architecture and its cryptography underpin the three main features which have allowed the technology to thrive:
i. Signatures – Blockchain’s “anonymous identification” method is made possible by digital wallets that consist of a public key (or address) and a private key. For instance, to complete a cryptocurrency transaction, both parties require their own private key and the other party’s public key. The parties’ respective inputs will create a unique output (so that the transaction can be identified) but the input can never be retraced (so that the parties cannot be identified).
ii. Hashing – Each block has a hash that arises as soon as it is added to the chain and identifies it in all subsequent blocks. The hash works like a unique digital fingerprint or chain mark and proves that the block’s data is verified. Any discrepancy between the hash and the block’s content, can reveal that a Blockchain has been tampered with and invalidate all following blocks.
iii. Conesus Mechanisms (“CMs”) – In the absence of a centralised authority, each Blockchain requires a mechanism by which new information is approved before its added to the ledger. Permissioned Blockchains tend to have pre-defined CMs, for instance requiring the new information to align with certain criteria. This is not the case for permissionless Blockchains. For instance, Blockchain-run cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum use the Proof of Work protocol, an algorithm that rewards “miners” (i.e. the Blockchain’s participants with sufficient understanding and computing power to navigate the technology) for competing with one another to verify crypto-transactions and thereby creating each block’s hash.
What does Blockchain have to do with art?
Not long after its birth, Blockchain was adopted by some art world participants who started to experiment with the possibilities that the technology provides. The intersections between Blockchain and art that have found the most traction over time are the technology’s incorporation in the artistic medium and its use for provenance verification.
A. Medium: Crypto art and NFTs
What is Crypto Art? Is it the same as an NFT?
The development of digital art forms has created the possibility to copy a work endlessly without sacrificing its quality. Thus arose the question of how to preserve the value of an artwork that is not unique. Enter Crypto Art, a derivative of digital art that derives its scarcity thorough the now-famous non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”) on a Blockchain.
Crypto tokens, or “crypto assets”, are data sets that represent a certain unit of value on a Blockchain. They can represent anything, from money to tangible or intangible objects. Thus, NFTs are lines of code, for instance reflecting data on an object’s properties or provenance, that function as a digital deed of ownership and are traded like cryptographic assets.
Each NFT is unique and can be identified by its unique digital signature. While NFTs do not prevent artworks from being copied, the NFT itself cannot be copied and therefore provides unequivocal proof of the original, and thus valuable, work. Some NFTs have commissions attached to the file, meaning the original owner will be paid a fraction every time there is a resale, like an automatically enforced Artist Resale Right (“ARR”). Any Blockchain can implement its own version of NFTs. However, most NFTs are currently part of the Ethereum blockchain.
How are NFTs created and sold?
To create an NFT, the artist creates a crypto wallet (i.e. an account on an app that allows the storage and trade of cryptographic assets), buys crypto currency (usually from crypto exchange platforms such as Coindesk), and chooses a host platform for their work, the most well-known of which are Nifty Gateway, Open Sea, RARE, and Grimes. Subsequently, the artwork is “minted”. This process is similar to uploading a video to YouTube or MP3 file to Spotify. Minting an artwork turns it into an NFT, replete with its own unique and trackable metadata, meaning a trackable provenance on the ledger for everyone to see. The result is a singular asset that can be sold and owned. Once minted, the artist determines a starting price and royalties and finally promotes their work on social media with a “drop”, meaning the announcement that the NFT is up for auction. Potential buyers can then make bids via the Blockchain. Accepted bids are registered on the Blockchain and the ownership of the NFT is transferred.
Does this only work for digital art?
While NFTs and the minting process are primarily targeted at digital artworks, it is also possible to represent physical works by NFT. While it was long believed that the tokenisation of physical art would fail, the process is becoming increasingly popular, for instance for provenance verification (see below) or stock-like investment purposes.
Furthermore, physical artworks oftentimes form the basis of derivative Crypto Art. For instance, an appropriation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive work of art, was recently minted and the NFT sold on Opensea.
There are several ways to do digitise a physical artwork:
i. Both works are declared as unique and thereby form separate artworks. They can be sold separately or together.
ii. Following tokenisation, the physical work is destroyed, so that only one original work exists. The artist can record the destruction process and add the recording as unlockable content to the NFT.
iii. The physical work is declared as a necessary tool to create the final piece and thereby becomes a master model, mould, or tool. This was the case in the abovementioned Salvator Mundi NFT.
iv. The physical piece is considered as the starting point for digital enhancement, rather than the final product.
v. The digital artwork is created first and a physical copy is created as an additional form of representation. For instance, following the sale of The First 5,000 Days, Beeple shipped high resolution prints of his works to the NFT buyers.
How can I picture a piece of Crypto Art? And what are they worth?
Crypto Art encompasses a wide range of artistic expression, including photographs, animations, pixels, and computer code. Many crypto artworks come in series and are designed specifically as collectibles. For instance, Crypto Punks, which are one of the earliest known crypto artworks, are a series of 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel images of “misfits and eccentrics”. The Punks differ in gender (although some are apes or aliens), hairstyle, accessories, and background. The rarer a certain feature is within the series, the more valuable the Punk. For instance, while their average sale price in the past 12 months was 15.45 ether ($30,412.40 or £22,000), CryptoPunk 6965, a fedora-wearing ape Punk, sold for 800 ether ($1.5 million or £1.08 million) in February, and CryptoPunk 7804, a pipe-smoking ‘wise alien,’ was sold for the equivalent of $7.5 million (£5.4 million) in March.
Similarly, Crypto Kitties are the colourful digital cat images that are traded between collectors in a gamified manner. For a while, they were so popular that they clogged up Ethereum’s digital currency network. To date, the Kitties have generated sales of over $40 million (£28.89 million).
Some crypto artworks are interactive, such as the Plantoids, blockchain-based robotic plants that interact with people who donate via Bitcoin and Ethereum. Others have no visual manifestation at all and consist purely of code. For instance, Kevin Abosch’s Forever Rose, although inspired by a photograph of a flower, exists only as a Blockchain token. Fittingly, it sold for a total of $1 million (£720,000) to a consortium of 10 buyers on last Valentine’s Day.
Where does this sudden demand for Crypto Art and NFTs come from? And who is crazy enough to invest in digital cat photos?
Thanks to the past year’s numerous lockdowns and incidental migration to digital environments, global online content consumption has soared. This is true for both passive consumption, for instance streaming a movie or spending time on social media, and active consumption, for instance shopping online. While this trend stretched over virtually all age groups, it has been particularly strong with people aged 25 to 35.
The re-kindled appetite for online sales not only forced the art world’s established sales channels, like galleries and auction houses, to expand their online presence, but also set the scene for new virtual platforms, such as Maecenas or Look Lateral, that attracted young, wealthy, and tech-savvy art buyers. Suddenly, millennials, particularly from Asia, rose among the most active buying force. These digital natives often joined the market from outside the art world’s established and exclusive “industry club” and did not know nor care about its accepted conventions. Consequently, they relate to the market differently and technology, which allows them to source endless amounts of material, work across time zones, achieve stunning results without any capital, is a natural part of their consumer behaviour. The market’s new platforms and audience are both reason for and consequence of its increasing tech- and asset-focus.
The art market’s opaqueness has long been known as an issue for artists, buyers, sellers, and intermediaries. This can be illustrated by Artnet’s finding in 2014, that roughly 50% of art circulating on the market was either fake or attributed to the wrong artist. In line with that, the scrutiny of artworks’ authenticity and provenance has grown significantly throughout the past years. With them grew the demand for reliable sources and proof of the relevant information and the market for companies promising a fix to the issue.
Since Blockchain entered the art world in 2017, there have been a growing number of digital registries that save all information on a ledger, so that ownership of a work can be tracked, and its characteristics recorded in a form that cannot be modified. Some service providers have since successfully capitalised on the sale of data integrity, advertising immutable proofs of authenticity, and the reduction of transaction costs. Some registries also offer living artists the ability to gain better control over their ARR.
Who runs these registries and how do providers differ?
The most influential registries to date include:
i. Artory, which incorporates an international auction sales database and has a vetted list of specialists who verify incoming information before adding it to its provenance Blockchain. The company partnered with Christie’s for the first-ever Blockchain-recorded auction as early as 2018.
ii. Codex, which partnered with a consortium of 5,000 online auction houses to verify incoming information. Its native token, BidDex records anything from photographs of the works, over appraisals, to past sale results.
iii. Verisart, which issues Blockchain-generated certificates of ownership and purchase through its partnership with auction houses and tech firms. Notably, the company made headlines in 2018 when someone successfully registered themselves as the owner of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and was a sent a certificate to prove it. While some perceived this as proof for the technology’s fallibility, others have argued that Verisart is merely a tool to collect a timestamp evidence, not an authoritative provenance register.
C. Risks and Challenges
“[T]here’s an attempt at a fairer global spread. It at least has a utopian bent to it.”
Simon Denny, contemporary artist
The use of Blockchain in the arts has been heralded by some as a new democratic ideal based on shared knowledge and decentralised authority that has the power to break the mould of the art world’s traditional density and elitism. Increased transparency, accountability, speed, and ease of transactions have the potential to allow artists to create, sell, trade and be paid on their own terms, and invite new parties to the formerly exclusive table. Many sellers and collectors therefore believe that the art world will continue to rely on Blockchain as a medium, form of expression, and provenance verification. Nonetheless, several questions and uncertainties remain.
How effective is Blockchain in preventing fraud?
New technology is inevitably susceptible to fraud and tech-inexperienced parties will likely find themselves particularly exposed.
It is crucial to be aware that Blockchain technology on its own does not overcome the problem of fraudulent data or behaviour. This is commonly referred to as the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomenon and draws attention to the fact that a Blockchain is only as good as the quality of its data. Thus, it is in combination with other technologies and/or comprehensive consensus mechanisms that Blockchain may reduce fraud.
Can the system be truly decentralised and democratic?
Blockchain is still considered as a relatively new and immature technology. Low awareness for its functioning and high implementation costs for companies could limit participation in the new environment. Further, the existing lack of interoperability of different Blockchains, as well as their respective security vulnerabilities, raise the threshold of technological connoisseurship required to navigate the fragmented ecosystem and complicated transactions.
With data being the most powerful source of trust in today’s art market jungle, those companies that have started to capitalise on the industry’s Big Data have secured positions of power that may not align with the decentralised utopia after all.
Which regulatory uncertainties await us?
Regulatory regimes and legislation often lag behind technological progress. Notably, Blockchain technology enables cross-national transactions at unprecedented speeds and volume. Differences in national laws and enforcement, paired with the absence of international frameworks or harmonisation, may expose businesses relying on Blockchains to legal vacuum or ambiguity, for instance in relation to:
i. Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) – While Blockchain helps reducing the number of intermediaries between the buyer and seller, it also hinders the disclosure of identities which is essential under AML legislation. Further, the constant fluctuation of cryptocurrencies can create uncertainty as to whether a transaction has met the threshold for compliance with AML identity verification.
ii. Competition and Cyber Security – Private Blockchains, for instance in provenance verification, carry the potential to engender entrenchment of power in the Blockchain system if only a select group of people can effectively act as gatekeepers due to their access to the digital keys. Beyond that, many Blockchain projects rely on cloud platforms, which in turn are provided by a small number of big, largely unregulated US tech companies.
iii. Copyright – Registering or minting works could lead to copyright infringement, ownership disputes (regarding the legitimacy of title and authority of different sources), and uncertainty regarding moral rights which vary by country. For instance, the NFT of a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat was recently withdrawn from sale on OpenSea after the late artist’s estate confirmed that the seller owned neither a license nor copyright to the work.
What is Blockchain’s environmental impact?
The cryptocurrency Bitcoin recently made headlines for the exorbitant levels of energy required to operate its platform (also referred to as “cryptodamages”). By way of analogy, in 2020, the amount of energy used for Bitcoin mining equated to that of all energy used by entire countries like Ireland or Argentina. The currency’s transition to renewable energy sources is slow and China, which conducts the most Bitcoin mining of any country by far, still derives two thirds of electricity from coal.
Since NFTs use the same Blockchain technology as some energy-hungry cryptocurrencies, they also end up using a lot of electricity. For example, Beeple’s sale generated 78,597kg of CO₂ emissions – the same amount of electricity used by more than 13 homes in an entire year.
While most NFTs are still tied to cryptocurrencies that generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact is of increasing interest to artists and buyers. Some artists have experienced reputational damage for ignoring the environmental impact. Others have refused selling NFTs on high-emission platforms. Simultaneously, smaller, green Blockchain networks, such as Harmony, Cardano, and Hic et Nunc have seen exponential growth in the past months. Further, Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin has announced the launch of Palm, an alternative Blockchain which is 99% more energy efficient than the current Ethereum Blockchain and that already attracted high-profile artists like Damien Hirst.
Is the “Blockchain trend” here to stay? And what would this mean for the parties involved?
Recent price drops in crypto artworks have been interpreted by some as the final elements in Blockchain and NFTs’ “hype cycle”, causing art market participants to wonder whether this is yet another bubble about to burst. By contrast, some experts said that price dips were to be expected and that the technology’s longevity in the art market should not be underestimated.
The next steps for Blockchain-run platforms will be to optimise the technology for collectors, “in other words, to promote the ownership economy as well as the creator economy”.
Melissa Gilmour, founder of London-based NFT agency Lily & Piper,recommends artists to take a “long term” view. This includes the alignment of prices for physical and digital works, ownership of their smart contracts, and continuous engagement with collectors.
Regardless of the involvement of Blockchain, buyers will continue to conduct due diligence. This may involve verifying the source of an NFT, the related use of the artist’s intellectual property (including any future resale of the NFT) or checking the reputability of any trading or provenance platform used.
Finally, while the number of intermediaries involved in art transactions is expected to drop further, galleries and auction houses are unlikely to become redundant, too prominent is their sales position in the art market. However, these institutions’ common workflows may well be increasingly complemented by the technological tools at their disposal. For example, on 4 June 2021, Sotheby’s opened its first-ever virtual gallery. Occupying a prime location in Decentraland’s Voltaire Art District, the building is a replica of the auction house’s iconic New Bond Street headquarter in London. The virtual gallery will have five ground floor spaces to show digital art, as well as a digital avatar of its London doorman to greet visitors at the door.
Camille Beckmann and Pierre Valentin
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 While Blockchain and DLT is sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to note that Blockchain is in fact a sub-category of DLT.
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 Examples for intangible objects range from tweets (such as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet “just setting up my” whose NFT sold at £2.1m), to videos of NBA highlights.
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While the platform was designed to host the Ethereum cryptocurrency (“ETH” or “ether”), it also supports NFTS which differ from ETH coins in the amount of and manner that information is stored on the platform.
 As the Open Sea platform, which Deller used for his NFT, uses the ‘lazy minting’ principle, minting The Last Day did not require any gas. However, once the work is sold, transfer to a new owner will require 48.14 kilowatt-hours of processing energy on the Ethereum platform. That is equivalent to 1.63 days of power consumption for an average American household.
 Note that minting, i.e. turning an object into an NFT, is not the same as mining, which is the process by which cryptocurrency transactions are verified and which awards new crypto tokens to those completing this process.
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 This happened for example to the musician and artist Grimes, who faced heavy scrutiny after selling millions of US Dollars’ worth of art on Nifty Gateway seemingly ignorant to the environmental impact.
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 Recent figures published by Nonfungible.com, showed that the average price of NFTs plummeted almost 70% from a peak of around $4,000 in mid-February to around $1,400 in April.
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