Whether or not NFTs represent a bubble about to burst or the future of the art market, Sotheby’s New York is renewing its commitment to the genre with its first curated NFT sale, “Natively Digital,” headlined by Kevin McCoy’s historic Quantum (2014), the first NFT ever minted.
“Back in 2014 when I was putting these ideas of art and blockchains together almost no one understood what I was talking about,” McCoy told Artnet News in an email. “But I knew it was a really important and transformative idea. It’s gratifying to see the wider world come around to the same realization.”
McCoy created Quantum on May 3, 2014, as part of a presentation at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven Conference. He and his collaborator Anil Dash were the first to conceive of putting unique digital works of art on the blockchain. At the time, they called the concept monetized graphics, or monegraphs.
Quantum is a generative piece, which means it automatically permeates into new forms that aren’t determined at the outset, and it is made entirely with code. “Visually, it suggests a new world coming into existence which I also really like,” McCoy added.
The auction house has not released a presale estimate for Quantum, but bidding starts at $100. Back in March, when the artist was looking to sell the work with Postmasters, his New York gallery, Axios suggested it could fetch over $7 million, matching the price of the most expensive collectible CryptoPunks, 24-by-24 pixel drawings of unique collectible characters that have become a market sensation of their own. (McCoy said he chose to offer the work through Sotheby’s with the support of his gallery because the opportunity “framed the right historical context of early and influential works and practitioners.”)
A rare alien punk, CryptoPunk #7523, will also be included in the upcoming Sotheby’s sale. The work is being sold by one “Sillytuna,” described by the auction house as “a pseudonymous crypto evangelist and NFT collector.” (The CryptoPunks are also headed to Christie’s New York with an evening sale on May 11.)
The third lot in “Natively Digital” will be The Shell Record by British artist Anna Ridler, an AI-created piece made through machine learning powered by generative adversarial networks. The piece, which features an animation of constantly morphing sea shells, is a reference to currency’s origins in prehistoric times, when sea shells were an important bartering tool.
The sale will take place June 3–10, 2021, and more lots will be added before then, according to Sotheby’s. It is co-curated by Robert Alice, who in October became the first artist to sell an NFT at a major auction house with the $131,000 sale of the Bitcoin hexadecimal code painting Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) and an accompanying NFT at Christie’s New York.
“The art and crypto worlds alike are still asking questions surrounding the idea of NFTs as a medium, their unique art history, and the increasing need for a curated view of the space,” Sotheby’s acknowledges. “What we do know is that day by day NFTs continue to redefine the very nature of both art and the artist’s place in the world.”
In the wake of Christie’s unprecedented $69 million sale of Beeple’s Everydays—The First 5000 Days, the first NFT art sold at a major auction house, Sotheby’s entered the fray with a total of $17 million in sales across a three-day auction featuring anonymous digital artist Pak. That included a single gray pixel—titled The Pixel, naturally—which fetched $1.36 million.
In a sign of Sotheby’s willingness to embrace not only NFT art but also cryptocurrency, the auction house announced that it will accept Bitcoin and Ethereum as payment for physical artworks for the first time next week.
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