Christie’s Auction House Will Now Accept Cryptocurrency

Christie’s Auction House Will Now Accept Cryptocurrency

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Last October, the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, who goes by Beeple, put a digital artwork in an edition of 100 up for sale. Each work cost $1, and the entire set sold out in less than one second. Today the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) representing the digital artworks are trading on Nifty Gateway, an NFT marketplace run by the Winklevoss twins, for “well over $50,000,” Winkelmann says. (The site lists the average resale price as $6,559, but the artist says that number is misleading, as it includes early, low-priced sales.)

In December, Beeple held an auction, in which he offered an open edition of three works, priced at $969 apiece. In five minutes 601 sold, totaling $582,369. The same auction included 20 unique digital artworks, which made a total of $2.2 million. The final lot in the sale was a single artwork containing all 20 images, which sold, after protracted bidding, for $777,778. All told, $3.5 million of Beeple’s art sold in just a few days.

“It’s been a lot to take in,” says Winkelmann, who has 1.8 million Instagram followers and until a few months ago had a day job making visuals for brands including Apple and Louis Vuitton, and artists such as Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. “The rabbit hole of possibilities that this is going to bring to the art world—I don’t think people are fully recognizing that this is going to be a massive, massive shift,” he says.

Fueling this shift is the network called Ethereum, which supports cryptocurrency Ether, currently trading at about $1,800 per token.

Everyone collecting Beeple’s artwork—almost all of the people who’ve bought, sold, and even fractionalized ownership of his images—were using Ether to pay for it, effortlessly shifting dollars and cents into the cryptocurrency via Coinbase, Gemini, and other platforms.

“Ethereum is like Bitcoin, but you can program rules on top of it that govern how these things work. ‘Smart money’ is the easiest sort of analogy for people,” Winkelmann says. “There’s a bunch of advantages that [cryptocurrency] affords. It’s super interesting and adds a ton of value.”

These advantages are not lost on the more traditional branches of the art market. On Tuesday, Christie’s announced it would auction a work by Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Daysin a standalone sale, which runs from Feb. 25 to March 11. 

Now the auction house has revealed to Bloomberg that it will accept Ether as payment for the artwork’s principal price. The premium, which is a polite word for saying the fee an auction house tacks on to the price, will have to be paid in dollars.

“We’re at this precipice where crypto is going to be such a more established and mainstream mode of conducting business,” says Noah Davis, the Christie’s specialist who’s organized the auction. “With this [sale], I think it’s the perfect way to dip our toes in and give this a shot.”

Testing New Markets

That Christie’s is willing to accept cryptocurrency for the first time, Davis continues, says more about the auction house’s attempt to break into new audiences than it does about a shift in the traditional art market.

“There are 1.8 million people who follow this guy on Instagram and for whom a $100 starting bid, up to a few thousand dollars, is accessible,” Davis says. “We want people to play the game and see that bidding is not this impossible-to-do, sort of velvet rope way to engage in popular culture.” 

Ideally, Davis says, a heretofore uninterested demographic of people could also realize that the auction market is, well, fun. “I’m thinking of Reddit, and GameStop, and the low bar for entry on platforms like Robinhood,” he says. “This artwork is the perfect way into the Christie’s universe.”

A New Work Every Day

Davis first heard about Beeple from a junior colleague who told him about the wildly successful sales on Nifty Gateway. He contacted Winkelmann and had an initial discussion that Davis describes as “abstract.” Winkelmann, in turn, offered a work for Christie’s to sell that Davis describes as “a complete nonstarter for us.” It was, he says, after searching for the right word, “challenging.”

The work in question, which anyone can view on the Beeple Instagram account, features several figures including a nude, lactating Buzz Lightyear; a pregnant, cyborg Michael Jackson; and what appears to be a bloody, muscle-bound Mickey Mouse. Donald Trump lurks in the background. “Honestly,” Winkelmann says, “I’m super thankful Christie’s said no to it.”

His second idea was to create a massive mosaic of all 5,000 of his works, which he calls Everydays because he’s made a new artwork every day for the past 13 years. “It becomes this more complete gesamtkunstwerk,” Davis says. “It really illustrates how epic his project is.” (Not to worry—the work that Christie’s initially turned down is included in the larger piece.)

The opening bid is set at $100, in an attempt, Davis says, to demonstrate that “a Christie’s auction can be accessible.”

Art Market Milestone

Should this auction prove a success, and should the successful buyer pay in Ether, it will represent a milestone in the secondary art market.

To date, there’s been a series of efforts to introduce blockchain to the art world; none have quite stuck, though the most successful efforts, such as the company Artory, have been primarily for cataloging purposes. By creating a permanent, unalterable line of provenance for an artwork, blockchain can render questions of authenticity moot. 

“We want to have it both ways,” Davis says. “We want to [use cryptocurrency] when it makes sense, but this is not necessarily the new rule of thumb, where every auction we’ll be taking crypto.”

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