Why Christie’s, a 250-Year-Old Auction House, Is Interested in Cryptocurrency

Here’s what you need to know about Beeple, Ether and NFT-based artwork

Christie's auction house paddle
The latest sale announced at Christie's from digital artist Beeple is a far cry from old-school auctions.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What do the Winklevoss twins, a lactating Buzz Lightyear and a 250-year-old auction house have in common? The latest sale at Christie’s, which will hit two major milestones: the first sale of a digital-only, NFT-based artwork from a major auction house, and the first time Christie’s will accept cryptocurrency as payment. Stay with us, there’s a lot to break down here. 

Bloomberg has the full story behind the artwork in question: “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” by digital artist Mike Winkelmann. Working under the name Beeple, Winkelmann has collaborated with brands like Apple and SpaceX, as well as musicians like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, and amassed a huge online following (most notably on Instagram). The piece heading to auction is a collage of 5,000 images created over 13 years, and while the bidding will open at $100 on February 25, by the time the sale closes on March 11 the hammer price is expected to be much higher. 

Wait, it’s only digital? Can’t I just go over to Christie’s right now and download the collage?

Sure, you could, but this is where the Winklevoss twins and the concept of NFT art comes in. NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token and, as The Art Newspaper recently explained, when you buy an NFT-based artwork “you are buying a token and the work of art linked to it.” It’s blockchain-based, which in the simplest possible terms means you can buy digital artwork and the proof of authenticity. Winkelmann has had previous success with sales like this through Nifty Gateway, which Bloomberg points out is an NFT platform currently owned by the Winklevoss twins, crypto investors famous for their Facebook feud with Mark Zuckerberg. 

Christie’s took note of the success Winklemann was having in the NFT space and they apparently wanted in, though it’s been quite a learning curve for the storied auction house. They’re known for selling pieces by revered painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. To show you how different Winklemann’s work is, here’s the artist’s statement for one of his previous digital pieces: “ok first off it’s a fucking dollar, if you need extra convincing from some BS artist’s notes wether you want to spend a dollar on this i will punch you in the god damn face. smash the buy button ya jabroni.” We’re living in a brave new world, people. 

Winklemann’s digital art has previously been purchased using Ether, a popular cryptocurrency that’s second only to Bitcoin. As Bloomberg reported, Christie’s will partially accept Ether as payment in this auction, though only for the principal price (the auction house premium will need to be paid in dollars). It’s a first for the institution, and you can think of this as a sort of test run; if the auction takes off, you can expect more of this in the future.

Oh, and what about the lactating Buzz Lightyear? Apparently a Beeple artwork featuring that figure, flanked by even more nightmarish characters, was the first piece he suggested to sell at Christie’s before “The First 5000 Days.”

Old-school art collectors not happy with these developments can at least be thankful that didn’t come to pass.

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