Christie’s Auction House made history last week, selling a JPEG file by artist Beeple for $69.3 million. “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” is a piece of art that can be downloaded and reproduced in seconds, by anyone on the internet. The only thing that separates it from what everyone else can have is the non-fungible token (NFT) that goes along with it
An NFT is more akin to a Bitcoin than a Rembrandt. It does not prevent you from copying the artwork to your own hard drive, but it does provide a certificate of ownership that cannot be reproduced. Essentially, the actual owner of the work can be proven, even though there’s nothing physical to own.
So why did this little bit of code sell for over twice the price of a Gerhard Richter abstract?
Certificates of authenticity and forgery in the art world are part of the story of why NFTs are turning heads this week. A traditional certificate of authenticity (COA) is an important tool to determine whether art was painted by who the owner says it was.
Recently they have been under fire, as many buyers rely too heavily on them to prove a piece’s legitimacy. The problem with COAs, some argue, is that if the art itself can be forged, can the COA not also be forged? In the case of an NFT, that would be practically impossible to do.
Determining Art Forgery
Art forgery is a delicate problem for art galleries and collectors, as it’s estimated that as many as 20% of all museum pieces are either fake or misattributed. Some museums and art galleries are more diligent about demonstrating provenance than others, and even the best-known authenticators have been duped.
It can also be exceptionally difficult to get a consensus on particular pieces. Most famously, La Bella Principessa has caused controversy, as scholars vehemently disagree on whether it is a work of Da Vinci’s or not. A convicted art forger, Shaun Greenhalgh, has claimed the work is his. Both opinions can be supported with a variety of strong arguments by experts in their field.
Not all fakes end up in galleries because of malicious intent, either. Da Vinci worked with apprentices and students, who copied his art and style to learn from their master. It can be difficult to discern, even for an expert, whether these works are misattributed to the more famous artist. Salvator Mundi for example, which sold for over $450 million, has been called into question, with some theorizing that the real artist may be Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a student of Da Vinci’s.
The Point of Authentication
There is also the question of whether it matters if these works of art are authentic or not. La Bella Principessa, estimated to be worth $160 million, has sat in a vault in Sweden for the past ten years. To the owner, it is an object of value, not art. Oftentimes collectors are acquiring these works of art as an investment, rather than out of interest for the piece. They become nothing more than stocks, acquired, traded, and held until their sale is required to raise capital. The same principle can be applied to the NFT. It is not the digital art that is the asset – it is the unique identifier that has been sold along with it. An item that is worthless suddenly is intangible and worth nearly $70 million to the right buyer. Which, in reality, is what most art actually is.