Last month, while strolling through the cavernous glass-ceiling rotunda of the British Museum, I wandered into the gift shop and saw something that made me do a double take. Amid the umbrellas and souvenir postcards was a sign suggesting “Visit our NFT store” and providing a QR code. Near the cloakroom line, I encountered display cases containing prints by Katsushika Hokusai, the revered 19th-century Japanese artist. One bore a tag indicating that the 1833 print had been turned into a non-fungible edition, or NFT, and had been purchased by a collector under the pseudonym pixeldrip.eth in January 2022, for just over four thousand dollars. “Scan to see our latest drops,” the label reads. Never mind the fact that the majority of visitors would probably have no idea what all of these terms mean. What were the digital replicas of an Edo-era artist doing in one of the world’s most famous museums, displayed prominently as if they were valuable works of art in their own right?
The British Museum’s NFT offerings were made in collaboration with a Paris-based company called laCollection, which was founded by Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps in early 2021. Beaucamps offered the museum a partnership and won an exclusive five-year contract to produce NFTs from its collection; the company will also soon announce a partnership with an American institution. LaCollection is supposed to provide a more curated offering than other NFT marketplaces. “I thought platforms like OpenSea were more like an eBay experience,” Beaucamps told me, adding that the NFTs for sale, which now also include works by JMW Turner ($1,000-$9,400) and Piranesi ( $520-$2,100), “extend the online museum experience.” The British Museum already creates commercial replicas of the artworks it owns, of course – that’s what the gift shop is for, but the aura of authenticity and rarity that NFTs create places products in a different category. According to a spokesperson for the British Museum, “each NFT is, in a sense, entirely unique and, therefore, very different from something like a poster or a t-shirt”.
It goes without saying that Hokusai has never done digital art. Neither JMW Turner or Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who commemorated ancient Rome in his famous etchings and died in 1778. Yet thanks to offerings from the British Museum, all are part of new efforts to capitalize on the work of artists as posthumously embracing fashion for NFT. collection among new rich cryptocurrencies. Last year, digital artworks originally created by Andy Warhol were turned into NFTs and auctioned off at Christie’s. In January, a Picasso NFT project sparked a feud between the artist’s descendants and his estate. These cutting-edge products could create new revenue streams or at least attract new attention. The British Museum’s NFTs were launched at a time when fewer people could physically access the museum due to the pandemic. “They realized that NFTs were perfect marketing tools to reach those communities that they weren’t reaching until now,” Beaucamps said, adding that the NFT scene is “much younger,” “a bit more masculine. ” and more international than art museums. usual audiences. The museum receives a commission on each NFT sale as well as a percentage of the secondary market fee. The British Museum declined to comment on the revenue generated so far, but has planned a list of new editions for later this year.
Creating new works by a deceased artist is generally taboo in the art world. Prints produced posthumously sell for less than those that an artist personally supervised during their lifetime. The British Museum has created NFT editions with varying levels of “rarity”, down to “ultra rare”, but these labels have nothing to do with the format or supply of the original artwork. Somewhat in contrast, a project from the estate of American painter Lee Mullican seeks to use NFTs as a means of conditioning native digital art. Last year, Cole Root, the estate manager, decided to sell NFTs of some digital pieces that Mullican created on computer software in the 1980s but never printed to his satisfaction during his lifetime. . “It’s easy to assume he’d enjoy his job browsing networked screens,” Root said of Mullican. Root has partnered with an NFT company called Verisart, which has worked with artists such as Roe Ethridge, Quayola and Rob Pruitt. Publishing the late painter’s obscure digital works as blockchain artifacts has a certain logic that some of the other posthumous attempts lack. The Mullican NFTs, priced at around one ether, or two thousand dollars, come with an ownership contract, certificate of authenticity, and an original source file of the part (although technology cannot guarantee that these materials will remain connected with the NFT artwork if it is resold). Root told me he doesn’t see the Mullican NFTs as an iteration of a work of art per se, but as “the frame or crate that holds the art.”
Julian Sander, great-grandson of German photographer August Sander, sees things even more clearly. “I’m against the idea that NFT itself is something of value,” he said. “It is effectively worthless; it’s literally just a bookmark for information. Nevertheless, in February of this year, Julian began what amounts to a digital and collective archiving experiment, when he gave ten thousand NFTs of contact impressions of his ancestor’s work. August Sander, born in 1876 and died in 1964, is best known for his extensive series of typological portraits “20th century people.” NFTs are images of physical prints that the Sander family made and annotated over generations to organize the artist’s negative oeuvre. Julian runs the Julian Sander Gallery, Cologne, which exhibits photographs, but he’s also been a programmer since he was young and has built inventory software for art collections. He noticed the NFT boom in 2020 and started working with an NFT photography organization called Fellowship. The technology “offers a Wikipedia-like opportunity to merge information from different sources into one place that becomes permanently and openly available,” Sander told me. “My goal was to put August Sander’s labor history as my family studied it over four generations in a place where everyone can access it.”