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The NFT phenomenon: How to exhibit digital artwork worth millions

Would you like to exhibit an artwork worth $69 million in your own home? It's easier than you might think.

  • First: Download the 21,069 x 21,069 jpeg from Makersplace here. It's a highly complex artwork by Beeple, and it was just sold at Christie's for the third-highest amount that any living artist has ever fetched at auction.

  • Second: Construct a screen that's big enough to display the whole thing — it would be about 70 inches square at 300 dpi resolution — or else upload the work to a virtual gallery that you can explore in AR. Alternatively, just open the file on your tablet or computer and just zoom in and out.

How it works: What you have just downloaded is the genuine artwork that was auctioned this week at Christie's. It is not a fake; it is identical in every respect to the file that is now owned by the buyer of the work.

  • The catch: Even once the file sits on your computer, you do not own the artwork. You can display it or explore it, but you can't own it. The only way to buy the work is to purchase the associated NFT, or non-fungible token — essentially a cryptographic contract that confers title to the work to whomever possesses it.
  • Ownership might be overrated, however. It doesn't give you any especial right to exhibit the work — anybody can do that. Neither does it confer any copyright in the work — that still belongs to Beeple, the artist. Pretty much the only thing that the owner can uniquely do with the work is sell it to someone else.

Between the lines: While many NFTs come with resale royalties that give the artist a cut of future sales, this particular one doesn't. As a result, there's every reason to expect the value of this particular NFT to go down rather than up.

  • NFTs are part of the generosity economy: They're a way for art lovers to reward their favorite creators; Beeple was rewarded this week to the tune of roughly $60 million.
  • In any future sale, however, Beeple will receive none of the proceeds, and buying the work will not be an act of generosity toward him.

The big picture: This is an artwork quite unlike anything that has ever been sold at Christie's before. The art object — the exhibitable digital file — has no financial value at all, even though it's where all the aesthetic and art-historical value lies. Meanwhile, the token conferring ownership of the object is worth millions, even though it can't be seen or experienced with any of the five senses.

The bottom line: The art world is placing a lot of hope in NFTs. In theory, they could provide a whole new revenue stream for struggling artists and galleries. But it is still unclear which art collectors will value them, or why.

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