What Can N.F.T.s Do for Dead Artists?

By May 14, 2022NFT
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Last month, during a stroll through the cavernous, glass-ceilinged rotunda of the British Museum, I wandered into the gift shop and saw something that made me do a double take. Amid the souvenir umbrellas and postcards was a sign suggesting “Visit our NFT store” and providing a QR code. Near the coat-check line, I encountered vitrines holding prints by Katsushika Hokusai, the revered nineteenth-century Japanese artist. One had a label noting that the 1833 woodblock print had been made into a non-fungible token, or N.F.T., edition and was purchased by a collector with the alias pixeldrip.eth in January of 2022, for just over four thousand dollars. “Scan to view our latest drops,” the label read. Never mind the fact that the majority of visitors would likely have no idea what all of these terms mean. What were digital replicas of an Edo-era artist doing in one of the most famous museums in the world, prominently displayed as if they were valuable art works in their own right?

The British Museum’s N.F.T. offerings were made in collaboration with a Paris-based company called laCollection, which was founded by Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps in early 2021. Beaucamps pitched the museum on a partnership and won a five-year exclusive contract to produce N.F.T.s from its collection; the company will soon announce a partnership with a U.S. institution as well. LaCollection is meant to provide a more curated offering than other N.F.T. marketplaces. “I thought that platforms like OpenSea were more like an eBay experience,” Beaucamps told me, adding that the N.F.T.s for sale, which now also include works by J. M. W. Turner ($1,000-$9,400) and Piranesi ($520-$2,100), “extend the experience from the museum online.” The British Museum already creates commercial replicas of the art work it owns, of course—that’s what the gift shop is for. But the aura of authenticity and rarity that N.F.T.s create puts the products in a different category. According to a British Museum spokesperson, “Each N.F.T. is, in a sense, entirely unique, and as a result very different from something like a poster or T-shirt.”

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It goes without saying that Hokusai never made digital art. Nor did J. M. W. Turner or Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who memorialized ancient Rome in his famous etchings and died in 1778. Yet, through the British Museum’s offerings, all have become part of new efforts to capitalize on artists’ work posthumously by embracing the fad for N.F.T. collecting among the cryptocurrency nouveau riche. Last year, digital art work originally created by Andy Warhol was made into N.F.T.s and auctioned at Christie’s. In January, a Picasso N.F.T. project caused a feud between the artist’s descendants and his estate. These newfangled products might create fresh sources of revenue or at least drum up fresh attention. The British Museum N.F.T.s launched at a time when fewer people could physically access the museum because of the pandemic. “They realized that N.F.T.s were perfect marketing tools to reach these communities they were not reaching so far,” Beaucamps said, adding that the N.F.T. scene is “much younger,” “a little bit more male,” and more international than art museums’ usual audiences. The museum gets a commission on each N.F.T. sale as well as a percentage of the secondary-market fees. The British Museum declined to comment on the revenue generated so far, but it has planned a slate of new editions for later this year.

Creating new work by a late artist is usually taboo in the art world. Prints produced posthumously sell for less than those that an artist personally oversaw in her lifetime. The British Museum has created N.F.T. editions with varying levels of “scarcity,” up to “ultra rare,” but such labels have nothing to do with the format or supply of the original art works. Somewhat in contrast, a project by the estate of the American painter Lee Mullican seeks to use N.F.T.s as a way to package digital-native art. Last year, Cole Root, the estate’s director, decided to sell N.F.T.s of some digital pieces that Mullican created on computer software in the nineteen-eighties but never printed to his satisfaction during his lifetime. “It’s easy to assume he would get a kick out of his work traversing networked screens,” Root said, of Mullican. Root partnered with an N.F.T. company called Verisart, which has worked with artists such as Roe Ethridge, Quayola, and Rob Pruitt. Releasing the late painter’s obscure digital works as blockchain artifacts has a certain logic that some of the other posthumous endeavors lack. The Mullican N.F.T.s, which are priced at around one ether, or two thousand dollars, come with a contract of ownership, a certificate of authenticity, and an original source file of the piece (though the technology can’t insure that such materials remain connected with the N.F.T. art work if it’s resold). Root told me that he sees the Mullican N.F.T.s not as an iteration of an art work per se but as “the frame or crate that holds the art.”

Julian Sander, a great-grandson of the German photographer August Sander, sees things even more starkly. “I am against the idea that the N.F.T. itself is something that’s valuable,” he said. “It’s effectively worthless; it’s literally just a bookmark for information.” Nonetheless, in February of this year, Julian began what amounts to an experiment in digital, collective archiving, when he gave away ten thousand N.F.T.s of contact prints of his ancestor’s work. August Sander, who was born in 1876 and died in 1964, is best known for his sprawling typological portrait series “People of the 20th Century.” The N.F.T.s are images of physical prints that the Sander family has made and annotated over generations in order to organize the artist’s œuvre of negatives. Julian runs Galerie Julian Sander, in Cologne, which shows photography, but he has also been a programmer since his youth and built inventory software for art collections. He noticed the N.F.T. boom in 2020 and began working with a photography N.F.T. organization called the Fellowship. The technology “offers a Wikipedia-like opportunity to merge information from different sources into a place that becomes permanently, openly available,” Sander told me. “My goal was to put the history of August Sander’s work as my family has researched it over four generations into a place where everyone can access it.”

In a literal sense, N.F.T.s are simply a line of code that has been stored on a decentralized record that points to a particular image or other asset. But the N.F.T.s have metadata attached, which can also be stored permanently on the blockchain. The metadata on the August Sander N.F.T.s includes information such as which collections a particular photograph is held in, who it was printed by, and which of the artist’s books it was originally included in. The result is a digitized, publically available version of the kind of archiving that artist estates often do behind closed doors. Every N.F.T. collector is “a steward of August Sander’s legacy,” a launch presentation declared. On OpenSea, viewers can scroll through a grid of contact prints like a researcher sifting through the artist’s archive. There are crystal-clear, composed portraits but also hazy, haphazard landscapes and interiors. Around the edges of the images are handwritten notes identifying the subject of the portrait, the location, or the approximate dates on which it was taken. The film frames of the negatives are visible, too—reminders of photography’s physicality. For Julian, the mass of N.F.T.s is a fitting way to present a body of work that Sander intended to be considered holistically.

The August Sander N.F.T.s have so far accrued four hundred ether, or around a million dollars, in resales, with Sander taking 7.5 per cent of royalties and the Fellowship taking 2.5 per cent. Julian’s hope is that such a secondary market will drive a self-sustaining mechanism for preserving the August Sander archive. He said that he intends to continue adding metadata to the collection and eventually offer N.F.T. collectors the ability to redeem the physical versions of the contact sheets they’ve purchased digitally. His project represents an interesting experiment and a strange kind of gamble, yoking the work of archiving to the volatile cryptocurrency market. As we’ve seen this week, the wealth that supports N.F.T. collecting can quickly vanish. Can the same people chasing cryptocurrency fads be trusted as stewards of something as enduring as art? Beaucamps, the founder of laCollection, was matter-of-fact. “It’s something that happens in many different periods of art history,” he said. “A new wave of collectors is kind of a new generation of patrons.”

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