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How blockchain technology reached Christie's and changed the art world along the way

“I think that not since the Renaissance have we seen such a shift in power back into the hands of the artists," artist Ben Gentilli said.
An installation view of Ben Gentilli's "Portraits of a Mind."
An installation view of Ben Gentilli's "Portraits of a Mind."Nicholas Gentilli

Earlier this month, 18 interested buyers got into a bidding war for a large, gray disk engraved and painted with 322,048 digits of code. It's a little more than 4 feet across, features a 24-karat gold leaf and comes with something the legendary Christie's auction house had never sold before: a piece of digital code that tracks the artwork's location.

The artwork, called "Block 21" and created by a London-based artist, Ben Gentilli, is part of a 40-piece series titled “Portraits of a Mind,” meant to create a history of bitcoin and its mysterious founder. The piece went for just over $130,000, causing a stir in both the art world and the blockchain world.

"Block 21" is now the most high-profile example of how blockchain technology has crept into the art world — and shown some signs of changing it.

“I think that not since the Renaissance have we seen such a shift in power back into the hands of the artists, and I say that because Gutenberg’s printing press allowed artists to print editions and that allowed them revenue streams they could control themselves from their own atelier and studios,” Gentilli said.

The piece of code is what's known as a nonfungible token (NFT), which uses a blockchain (in this case the Ethereum blockchain) to create a unique identifier that can be tracked. It's one of the many applications of blockchain technology, which uses shared computing power to create secure and almost unhackable digital ledgers.

Gentilli’s NFT serves as an extension of his artwork, but many in the crypto art space lean on these tokens as a means to devalue counterfeits and establish passive income. Each token is generated by a smart contract, which is unique, unchangeable and forever linked to a specific work of art. Artists can make as many tokens as they’d like per work of art — think of them like editions — meaning the fewer tokens, the scarcer the work, increasing its value. Once a digital artwork is tokenized, it lives on the blockchain, where it can be purchased, traded and its provenance established.

That’s the key difference between just digital art and crypto art — the latter is just the former, but on the blockchain.

When it comes to forgery, taking a screenshot is much simpler than re-creating a one-of-a-kind work of physical art. Tokenizing digital art makes identifying the original irrefutable — it gives artists and collectors power over the value and ownership with a legitimate and immutable public record. NFTs effectively resolve copyright infringement issues, create a trustworthy ecosystem for collecting digital art and strengthen artist retail rights. With NFTs and the blockchain, artists' retail rights are programmed into the code.

Some artists have already experimented with purely digital art that includes ownership tokens. One game developed on the Ethereum blockchain, CryptoKitties, provided people with a way to buy, sell and create drawings of cats.

The use of blockchain technology has also pushed the art world to reconsider how artists are compensated for their work, especially if it appreciates.

In the traditional art world, an artist can often sell a piece for a couple hundred dollars that goes for millions a few decades later. The original artist sees no benefit in that price increase.

“When I was still a young man, it occurred to me that if I remained an artist for many years, at some point my greatest competition would be myself as a younger man,” contemporary Southwestern U.S. painter Lawrence Lee wrote. “I was right.”

In the crypto art world, digital marketplaces offer royalties to artists for secondary sales. When an artwork is resold, creators get a commission of that revenue.

Matt Kane sold oil paintings in the early 2000s before becoming a web developer. He taught himself how to code and eventually created his own art software to make crypto art. To date, his tokenized work “Right Place & Right Time” is the second-most expensive piece of digital art sold, behind Gentilli’s. It sold for $101,593 in September.

Kane said many people in the crypto art space are trying to create a more equitable model for the future, one that cares about the artist as they age and allows them to participate in their own success.

Matt Kane's "Zero."
Matt Kane's "Zero."Matt Kane

“This is the spirit that is born out of the crypto space. We’re interested in the welfare of the many over the profit of the few,” Kane said. “I think that’s sort of an ethic that we all find very easy to believe in.”

Anna Louise Simpson, an artist based in Scotland, was making traditional collage art when one of the main crypto art platforms contacted her to see if she was interested in tokenizing her pieces. She didn’t know much about blockchain at the time. At the end of June last year, she tokenized her first art piece.

“I managed to get myself so confused, I put my own name as the title of the piece, and then it was on the blockchain forever,” she said. She tried to buy it back a few months ago, but the owners aren’t selling.

Aside from forever minting her name on the blockchain and the learning curve to convert her first sale from Ethereum to money in her bank, Simpson said she found helpful videos and blogs on how to make the shift into crypto art. In just a little over a year, she is now a full-time crypto artist.

“When you start out, you start out selling for low amounts and you’re grateful for every sale, but as you grow as an artist, those sales become secondary sales,” Simpson said. “It’s amazing to wake up and get an email that says you’ve just received a royalty payment. More platforms need to be offering that to artists.”

Koosha Azim, 17, a student in San Francisco, creates surrealist abstract pop art. He got into cryptocurrency in late 2017, so he had an understanding of the principles of blockchains going into the crypto art space. He said one of the most important aspects in the digital age is ownership.

“We see musicians and artists not getting the fruit of their labor and not being able to establish passive income, and I think that now more than ever, as we move more and more digital, the idea of establishing royalties and having that be a really transparent and organic process like it is in the digital art world is essential,” Azim said.

Koosha Azim's "Melting Mirrors."
Koosha Azim's "Melting Mirrors."Koosha Azim

He said he’s seeing his old artwork resold among collectors, and he’s earning income each time that happens. “It’s helping the artist," he said. "There’s no middlemen. It’s going straight to the artist’s wallet.”

SuperRare is one of the leading crypto art marketplaces. According to Cointelegraph, it made more than $1.6 million in trade volume as of August, quadrupling its sales from the start of the year. SuperRare takes a 15 percent commission on primary sales and gives artists a 10 percent commission on secondary sales.

Gentilli said the crypto art community does digital so well in many ways, but it’s missing that physical component.

“It needs to see itself physically in spaces like Christie’s to kind of understand its place in the world," he said, "and I think it allows a lot more human connection.”