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What does $69 million for a JPEG even mean?

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 22, 2021 5:00 am

If an artwork sells for $69 million at auction, but only exists in cyberspace, does it even actually exist?

Wrapping your head around the record-breaking sale of an NFT (non-fungible token) artwork at Christie’s auction last week might take a little breather. Maybe even a philosophical double-take.

Wait…whaaaat?

There. That’s better. The artist in question, Mike Winklemann, an American, goes by the name of Beeple online. He has been producing a single digital art image for the past 5,000 days (almost 14 years) and posting them on a website. A recent collage of those images — titled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” — was put up for auction through Christie’s, where rights to the digital image were acquired by a buyer for close to $70 million.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey famously sold rights to his very first tweet (it’s expected to grab $2.5 million at auction this month, which, for five words — “just setting up my twttr” — managed to haul in $125,000 per character).

Before that, he created digital art for Louis Vuitton, Nike, and Apple, video loops for performances by Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and others.

His biggest previous NFT sale was for two political animations, depicting either possible winner of the 2020 US election (it eventually sold for the possibly ominous sum of $6.66 million in February 2021.).

But this is the mother lode. His sale of “Everydays” represents the third biggest price paid for a living artist’s work. Ever. And it only exists online.

It’s a freakin’ JPEG.

But let’s back up a bit.

First, it’s helpful to understand that digital collectibles have been a thing for a while now. Celebrities have been selling digital rights to their posted keepsakes for some years, sometimes fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Recording artists like Grimes and celebs like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton sell collectible digital doodles, memes, GIFs of cats, and bespoke Pokemon cards for big bucks.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey famously sold rights to his very first tweet (it’s expected to grab $2.5 million at auction this month, which, for five words — “just setting up my twttr” — managed to haul in $125,000 per character).

Strangely, it was William Shatner — Captain Kirk himself — who started the NFT trend in 2020 by selling packs of digital trading cards featuring random images of himself over the years. They started at $25 per pack, but certain cards can now fetch $6,800 each.

Often, the money being exchanged for these online curios is cryptocurrency, but it needn’t be; people also pay good old cash or direct deposit.

But this Christie’s sale of a JPEG image is in another league altogether. We are now plunked down in an age of online everything, including monetary value and art acquisition.

Curiously, you can view the Beeple collage online at varying degrees of pixel depth for free, wherever and whenever you like. (It’s fascinatingly detailed, and possibly mecryptographicaningless.) What was actually sold was a  “minted” token with a unique imprint  — the NFT — the ownership of which can be traced and verified.

Unlike the old days of art authentication — people with official papers and magnifying glasses and X-rays and the like — the NFT relies on blockchain, which means the artwork’s singular identity is publicly listed and verified among all users in the crypto space.

The owner of 'Everyday' is now someone named MetaKovan, a Singapore-based cryptocurrency investor who cannily calls Beeple’s collage the “crown jewel” of digital art.

The owner of “Everydays” is now someone named MetaKovan, a Singapore-based cryptocurrency investor who cannily calls Beeple’s collage the “crown jewel” of digital art and estimates that, as the first-ever big sale of its kind, it will eventually be worth $1 billion. Or so he hopes.

Some obvious questions arise, such as what will this eventually mean for museums and our own personal experience of art in a physical space? Well, a lot.

We’ve already adjusted to a year of ordering in, getting all our entertainment online, and visiting virtual museum spaces. Some may no longer value the tactile experience of being up-close with a Degas or a Monet as much; art appreciation may become an even more private, conceptual experience, as it’s enclosed in a digital space. (The “concept” is money. Lots of money.)

For the art market, cryptocurrency, NFTs and the like are probably just another tactic to manipulate prices and shift billions, similar to the recent artificial boost of GameStop stock by Reddit investors. It’s all about the ka-ching, and less and less about the aesthetics.

As for museums, I have a feeling most people will still prefer an actual personal encounter with an artwork, just as some people will prefer not to be “online” all day long, and some will always prefer a physical book over a digital e-pub.

The real question becomes: where will the money flow in the future? Toward physical spaces, like museums, which require staff, upkeep and security? Or toward a tidy vacuum online where ridiculous sums whiz by in a soft, continuous whirr?

Some have observed that the digital age means that time, in a sense, has stopped. It’s now frozen in amber, online forever.

Online, we can experience all the great music over the past century, all the history, all the art, all the vast expanse of human achievement and folly, in an endless scroll or series of links. Like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, we now experience all of time simultaneously, at least conceptually, in the digital space.

What the “Everydays” collage represents is just such a simultaneous compression of time — some 13 years producing what, in the end, amounts to a conceptual void: a random montage of images. 

And for us ever-gazing humans? Monetizing everything online — including art — has become the fulcrum, perhaps, that will push us toward abandoning the physical world forever.

Welcome to your non-fungible future, humans.

Banner photo from Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”