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Art and NFTs: Beeple reflects one year after historic $69 million digital art sale

The digital artist knows NFTs aren't perfect: "Let’s fix the problems, and let’s use this technology to better things."
Image: Beeple, the artist known for blockbuster NFT sales, mingles with guests at a show of his physical artwork in New York, March 3, 2022.
Beeple, the artist known for blockbuster NFT sales, mingles with guests at a show of his physical artwork in New York, March 3, 2022.Landon Nordeman / The New York Times via Redux

Mike Winkelmann’s life changed on March 11, 2021, and so did the trajectories of the art and the blockchain communities. 

That day, Winkelmann, a digital artist more commonly known by the handle Beeple, sold “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” an NFT-linked digital collage at Christie’s. The work brought in $69.3 million at the revered British auction house. 

Now, a year later, he spoke with NBC News about the sale and what he thinks about the evolving NFT art scene.

“It very much changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “The same could be said for the broader art world.” 

The sale brought NFTs — non-fungible tokens — into the limelight, inspiring a surge of enthusiasm and money around the technology, and the NFT community is still navigating its move into the mainstream. Estimates of total NFT sales in 2021 vary from $25 billion to $41 billion — both a tremendous increase from 2020, when sales totaled more than $250 million. 

Winkelmann, speaking during a Zoom call from his 50,000-square-foot studio in Charleston, South Carolina, now employs 15 people and is building his own gallery space. 

“I haven’t honestly fully processed the sale because things really just keep happening,” he said.

Image: "Everydays: The First 5000 Days," a collage of digital images by Beeple.
"Everydays: The First 5000 Days," a collage of digital images by Beeple.Christie's Auction House / AFP - Getty Images

The story of NFTs isn’t all money and glory. As they’ve become increasingly entrenched in pop culture, digital platforms that facilitate the sale of NFTs are facing allegations of environmental destruction, insider trading, service errors, plagiarism and fraud, leading to calls for increased regulation and oversight of a space that was founded on the rosy promises of individualistic freedom and artist empowerment. 

Still, many in the art world believe NFTs represent a permanent shift, albeit one that has to contend with challenges not entirely uncommon to the high-art community.

Marcus Fox, the global managing director of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, said the initial Beeple sale did fuel speculation but that he’s seen a shift in the market.

“I don’t think there’s the same perception of a bubble now that there was a year ago,” he said. “More familiarity and more awareness is being created around what is great and has real staying power.” 

“I think that those are the really the building blocks of a sustainable market.” 

An NFT is a unique digital certificate that attributes authenticity. They are bought and sold within a blockchain — a digital ledger formed by a network of computers — oftentimes using cryptocurrency like ether (ethereum). 

While commonly associated with digital art, NFTs have been applied to a wide range of objects including memes, photos and NBA trading cards. While most NFTs are exchanged on OpenSea, Nifty Gateway and LooksRare are also prominent marketplaces. 

Winklemann said he’s well aware of the issues around NFTs and that he doesn’t find the specificities of cryptocurrency or blockchain to be that interesting. For him, the NFT technology simply allowed him to earn money from his art. 

The people entering the NFT market after Winklemann’s sale see that potential, as well.

“I did this for 20 years without making any money,” he said. “The money aspect is nice and allows me to work on more ambitious projects.” 

With his first gallery exhibition, “Beeple: Uncertain Future,” currently on display at the Jack Hanley Gallery in New York City, he said he believes that NFTs are a gateway to placing digital artwork in conversation with contemporary art. He compared the trajectory of digital art to the history of photography, noting how it wasn’t initially considered fine art

Image: Works from Beeple's first gallery exhibition "Beeple: Uncertain Future" on display at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York City in March 2022.
Works from Beeple's first gallery exhibition "Beeple: Uncertain Future" on display at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York City in March 2022.Brad Farwell

Winklemann said he sees a future for the art market that uses a hybrid model of physical artworks sold along with NFTs. “Uncertain Future” uses this model. 

“The value will not be because people are so focused on the NFT thing,” he said. 

“It’s just a better certificate of ownership than just, ‘Here’s a piece of paper, don’t lose it,’” he said while waving a scribbled note. 

Winklemann drew an analogy between the ascent of NFTs and the broader Web3 scene (shorthand for what blockchain enthusiasts see as a future version of the internet primarily powered by blockchain technologies) and the early days of the internet. 

“It wouldn’t have been great if we were like, ‘Let’s scrap the whole internet,’ because we’ve got these problems at the beginning,” he said. “No, let’s fix the problems, and let’s use this technology to better things.” 

Prior to the “Everydays” sale, Winklemann had accrued millions of social media followers through posting his politically provocative art on Instagram, going to design conferences and workshops, and working with luxury fashion brands and pop stars. 

In October 2020, Winklemann’s social media fans encouraged him to look into NFTs. At the time, he said most of his colleagues in the digital art community weren’t aware of what they were, but after consulting with NFT artist PAK, he said he figured he’d give it a shot. In December 2020, he had a record-breaking $3.5 million NFT sale on Nifty Gateway that caught the attention of Christie’s. 

Winklemann, however, could be the exception that proves the rule. Despite the rhetoric about democratizing the art world, the vast majority of NFT artists have yet to reach a fraction of his success. A study published in Nature last October concluded that most NFTs don’t sell for much money and are purchased by a limited number of people. The study analyzed 6.1 million NFT transactions from 2017 to late April 2021 and concluded that 75 percent of NFTs were sold for under $15 and that 85 percent of all transactions can be attributed to 10 percent of traders. 

Andrea Baronchelli, economic data science theme lead at The Alan Turing Institute and a co-author of the study, said that his team decided to conduct the study shortly after witnessing the media frenzy surrounding Christie’s initial Beeple sale. He said that not much has changed within the power dynamics of the market since April 2021 and that there’s been increased gravitation toward websites that emulate traditional galleries like Christie’s by curating a few NFTs to showcase, establishing themselves as the connoisseurs of taste in the space. 

“We’re very good at re-creating online all the structures that we know offline,” he said.

Winklemann said he is a realist when it comes to the potentiality of NFTs, encouraging other artists to thoroughly research the medium and not assume that it’s an easy way to get rich. 

He compares NFTs to a canvas.

“What is the benefit of a canvas to a painter that nobody knows? Nothing. It’s just the canvas,” he said. “NFTs have really no huge benefit to somebody unless you have somebody who wants to buy your art to be quite honest.” 

He remains an advocate for the broader concept of decentralization, but the digital artist also says that some people in the NFT community “want it both ways” by relishing the freedom found in blockchain communities and industries without considering that they will have to solve their own problems.

“We’re going to need to sort of dial in the right amount of control for people, but then also protections,” he said.