The digital artist Mike Winkelmann, professionally known as Beeple, just sold an NFT—a “non-fungible token,” an asset on a cryptocurrency blockchain—of his image Everydays: the First 5000 Days at auction by Christie’s for $69,346,250. This is the third most expensive auction sale ever of a work by a living artist.
That brought plenty of publicity—both to Beeple and to NFTs themselves. But high art is a strange world, one that for decades has run on hype, pumping prices, the convenience of transferring large sums of money through nominal purchases across borders, and an increasing detachment from any physical reality. That makes it a natural match for the world of blockchain.
Most crypto-assets, such as bitcoins, are “fungible”—you don’t care which particular bitcoins you have, only how much bitcoin you have in total. Non-fungible tokens are individually unique and can be used as an identifier for an individual object. An NFT is just a pointer, containing a website address, or maybe just a number. An index entry, scribbled in inedible ink—and dependent on you not physically losing it.
The Christie’s conditions of sale are 33 pages of small print, but they eventually admit that you are not buying any copyright or other rights—not even reproduction rights—to the digital image. You are buying only the NFT itself: a crypto-asset containing a pointer to a copy of the digital image file.
In other words, you buy a certificate of authenticity, but not the work authenticated by it—just the bragging rights to it. NFTs are