With DeFi markets sputtering earlier this week, crypto twitter seemed to suddenly shift its attention to the next shiny new thing this week: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.
But NFTs aren’t new. In crypto, the concept has been around for over 5 years. However, this market cycle, they are inherently more interesting. Today, I’ll briefly sum up what NFTs are and dig into one fascinating aspect of this market: high-end crypto art.
What are NFTs
Items that are fungible can be replaced with another identical item without anyone caring. For example, any $5 bill can buy a hotdog just as effectively as any other. Bitcoin, ether and pretty much any crypto asset you see on messari.io fall into the “fungible” bucket.
Items that are non-fungible are unique and can’t be exchanged 1 to 1. The simplest example being art. Try asking the people at the Louvre to swap your 5 year-old’s crudely painted hand-turkey with the Mona Lisa and you’ll experience true non-fungibility.
So in the crypto world, NFTs are simply tokens that represent something unique. Unsurprisingly, NFTs attached to unique pieces of purely digital artwork are gaining steam.
Crypto’s Art Scene
In many ways, much of crypto is simply the recreation of existing human behaviors in a purely digital environment. Markets. Trading. Lending. Borrowing. Speculation. As such, it should be no surprise that markets have formed around trading and speculating on works of digital art.
Like NFTs, crypto art markets have been around for years. As with NFTs and DeFi as a whole, the underlying technology is much more mature this cycle. Add in the fact that there’s a ton of freshly created wealth in the space from DeFi’s casino summer, and you get a crypto art market that’s heating up. After all, investors need to park all those DeFi gains somewhere.
Nowhere is this combination of technological sophistication and wealth on display than in this piece from Matt Kane titled, “Right Place – Right Time” that sold for almost $100K on a platform called Async Art.
Right Place – Right Time
If you look at the above screenshot of Matt Kane’s work, it just looks like a cool piece of Bitcoin art. What’s under the hood is what makes it interesting. Kane wrote an algorithm that’s tied into a BTC pricing feed. Every 12 hours, the algorithm updates the piece based on Bitcoin’s volatility from that day, which you can see on display in this GIF.
In addition to being an evolving work of art, there are a few other components that make this interesting. For one, Kane has retained an ownership token that allows him to fine-tune the piece over time – a novel aspect of NFT based artwork that allows the artist to retain some level of control over the work. Artwork no longer has to remain static, and instead, can adapt and evolve as an artist builds upon their work over time.
Secondly, as this piece responds to the rhythms of bitcoin volatility, it will mint 210 individual NFTs based on significant days of movement. For example, say BTC hit’s $20K, a new NFT will be minted and sold based on what the piece looks like on that day. Whoever buys that NFT will have the ability to claim a physical print version.
The next point of interest are the rights baked into the sale. The work was purchased by a collector going by the name of TokenAngels. As the piece generates and sells new NFTs, TokenAngels will receive 21% of each new sale. So in addition to the potential for the work to increase in value, it’s also a productive asset. Again, something fundamentally new, all codified into the underlying work
A Shift in the Balance
Traditional art is a $65 Billion dollar market, with the balance of power firmly in the hands of wealthy collectors.
There was an infamous contemporary art sale in the 1970’s by a collector named Robert Scull. Scull bought up works from living artists around the world from $600-$10,000 and then sold them at auction for many multiples of his purchasing price. All-in-all, Scull’s total collection sold for an unheard of $2.2M ($14.7 million adjusted for inflation today).
While this auction is credited for the birth of the highly speculative contemporary art market, Scull was criticized for how little of the windfall went to the actual artists. For example, Scull bought a piece from an artist named Robert Rauschenberg called, “Thaw” for $900 and sold it for $85,000. Rauschenberg didn’t see a dime in royalties.
NFTs come with the benefit of more artist-friendly terms, leading to a shift in the balance of power between artist and collector. Note that TokenAngels receives 21% of the residual NFT sales from Matt Kane’s piece, not 100%. Similarly, an NFT art marketplace called SuperRare bakes a 10% creator royalty commission into all secondary sales – something Robert Rauschenberg would have appreciated in 1973.
A New Frontier
More artist-friendly terms along with curated marketplaces like SuperRare and Async Art are attracting a flood of new artists into the space. For a profession that’s notoriously impoverished, the allure of large amounts of money sloshing around these markets make crypto art even harder to ignore.
In addition to Matt Kane, we’re already seeing early signs of a new breed of artists. Another name gaining steam is an artist that goes by the name of Pak. In true crypto fashion, Pak is completely anonymous and there’s speculation over whether their art is the product of one person or of artificial-intelligence produced by a collective of engineers. Pak has over 140K twitter followers and has sold over $350K in NFT artwork, including this piece that recently went for around $10K.
Given that this is crypto, it’s also worth noting just how ripe these markets are for manipulation. Imagine how easy it would be for a whale to purchase a Pak piece for $10K, sell it to a friend for $25K, buy it back for $50K and then sell it to an unsuspecting speculator for $100K. Wash trading has already become problematic on a platform called Rarible and undoubtedly is taking place. (Rarible has recently introduced platform fees in order to disincentivize wash trading, although it likely won’t be a bullet-proof solution to the problem).
Wash trading aside, all of this speaks to the fact that the NFT hype isn’t without merit. These are new behaviors uniquely made possible through new marketplaces primarily built on Ethereum. And crypto art is only the beginning.
NFTs can and will be used to represent other non-fungible items. The obvious being other forms of creative outputs like music. Less obvious but equally intriguing are financial contracts like insurance. Imagine taking out a policy on your work of art that insures against loss of the work’s private keys.
The integration of DeFi primitives into the NFT space is accelerating rapidly. For example, using a platform called NFTfi, you can now post your NFT as collateral and take out an ETH denominated loan. Another platform, Niftex enables NFT holders to fractionalize their assets into multiple tradeable tokens. While these applications are new, it’s not hard to see them taking off alongside the rest of the crypto art and NFT market.
In a few decades, the rise of Ethereum art markets might be comparable to Robert Scull’s introduction of the speculative contemporary art market. The key difference is that this time, artists will be well compensated for their work. Perhaps the masterpieces of the future will be on display in galleries held in metaverses like Decentraland, each insured by NFT policies, on loan from the collector with the original artists still collecting royalties on their work years after inception.
Stay up on all-things NFT
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