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Why auction house Christie’s entered the wild NFT market

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Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are the hottest craze in the art market today, although they may appear to be backed by little more than the cryptocurrency fueled mania. Owners of artwork sold through an NFT typically do not have physical artwork beyond what they can print. Yet NFTs are revolutionizing one corner of the market and selling for serious valuations.

The industry’s biggest moment came this month when an artist named Beeple sold an NFT-backed digital collage called Everydays: The First 5,000 Days through Christies for $ 69 million, after offers from opening started at $ 100. The price itself was shocking, but it was also remarkable that this new industry was fully embraced by an institution associated with the rigid protocols and muted tones of a traditional auction house.

Christies spokesperson Rebecca Riegelhaupt spoke Barrons on how the company embraced NFTs and why they think the market is more than a flash in the pan. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Barrons: What prompted Christies to get into NFT?

Rebecca Riegelhaupt: We have always kept our eyes on how art and technology interact, knowing that this is an interest of collectors in the contemporary art market. In October 2020, we sold the first work with an NFT. And it was a work by Robert Alice. We had a tremendous reaction to this. The estimate, I think, was $ 12,000 to $ 18,000 and it ended up selling for $ 131,000.

From there, we could really understand that there was this very enthusiastic market there. We saw a whole new audience. Then in January, MakersPlace, which is a marketplace for digital collectibles, approached us and told us that we are working with Beeple, who we know as one of the leading digital artists, and told us. sell you works? And we said Absolutely, especially because in December he had 20 digital works sold for $ 2.2 million. It’s a substantial price, so it seemed like a great opportunity. And then we kind of took it from there. We wanted to venture into this space that we knew would be important for a certain segment of the market.

The people who got rich in crypto?

This certainly includes people who are heavily involved in crypto. Some of them are in technology and finance. It’s a very savvy community, and it’s definitely a group of collectors that Christies would love to interact with more.

Are there different payment options?

Yes, one of the payment options for this bundle was Ethereum. This is the first time that we are doing this. We certainly weren’t going to offer ether as an option for every bundle in the future. But I think where it makes sense and there is a willing consignor and an audience likely to pay in cryptocurrency, they will certainly be able to decide whether or not to offer it. And we worked with a third-party digital wallet company, Gemini, to process the transaction.

Is Christies always on the lookout for trends like this?

Absolutely. In 2018, we sold an artwork that was the first artwork from a global auction house made using artificial intelligence. That same year, we sold a very traditional, truly extraordinary American art collection recorded on the blockchain. This is definitely something that we think is very important to our business and that we are watching closely.

Did you expect the Beeple coin to come at a certain price? Has it been evaluated or has the price been previously estimated?

For the first time in our history, we said that this is a really, really new field for us, let’s not pretend we’re the experts here, because we are. And kind of lets play in the enthusiastic audience here and give everyone the chance to bid and set the opening offer at $ 100. And we placed the estimate as unknown. We’ve set a starting bid at $ 100 before, but we’ve never made an unknown estimate. This kind of underlined our novelty in this area.

Do you expect the NFT market to continue to grow? Or does this kind of mania coincide with the sudden surge in cryptocurrency prices?

I think it’s kind of a confluence of different factors. The first is that, of course, you see this wave of people who have made a lot of money in cryptocurrency, and that’s the kind of art they’re interested in. This is one side of things. The other side of it is that you have a well established digital art that has been around since the 1950s when computers were first introduced. The community has continued to expand, develop and grow over the past 70 years.

But it has always been impossible to monetize works in purely digital means because it is easy to duplicate works on your computer. With the introduction of NFTs and blockchain technology, you are able to do work that cannot be duplicated and contains all relevant information about past sales history, as well as the digital signature and initial size of anything you would put in a prominently encrypted auction catalog on file. It transforms digital artists who were previously relegated to the rank of amateurs or graphic designers mainly focused on the work of clients into artists just like painters or sculptors.

How do you make sense of a price like $ 69 million?

Of course, $ 70 million is a huge amount for anything. There is no denying the fact that this is a really, really significant amount that is very rare, especially among living artists. Having said that, going back to what I said about digital arts, it’s kind of making up for lost time.

It is a medium that has not been able to enter the market until now. There is already this built-in established audience. They see one of their most promoted artists release a work of art that includes 5,000 images, a testament to his dedication to the medium. You see it as some kind of epic job. This is a monumental opportunity for the collector base and a really exciting breakthrough moment, especially for them.

Is there a way to put some kind of historical perspective, this is the start of a new era?

It’s not that different from, say, introducing street art to premier collecting. It’s a different aesthetic. It’s a different group of artists, and it’s kind of a widespread acceptance that it’s fine art.

Barrons: Thank you.

Write to Avi Salzman at [email protected]

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