NFT’s at Christie’s

The NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) are making news in the art world as auction house “Christie’s Will Become the First Auction House to Offer Non-Fungible Token Art.”

Last December, an artist who goes by the name “Beeple” made headlines when he set a new record for the most valuable artwork auctioned off Nifty Gateway, a marketplace for limited-edition digital items. Beeple sold 20 artworks for a total of over $3.5 million, catching the attention of those who might not previously have known about the existence of NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens. While just a few years ago blockchain-based art might have been considered niche, a recent development proves this is no longer the case: on Tuesday, Christie’s announced an upcoming auction featuring thousands of images created by Beeple that have been compiled into a single composition.

The actual art looks very much like regular art. And are trading amongst buyers and sellers at a nice clip. Bitcoin.com reports that in a week last August there were 14,654 sales and $1.2 million in weekly trade volume. This piece by Trevor Jones commanded a nice price.

So what about the NFT- or the non-fungible token notation.

Crypto art relies on non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which are usually issued with an Ethereum token, ERC-721. This ensures verifiable digital scarcity; each artwork is a uniquely distinguishable digital asset—no two are the same. 

Crypto Art Sales on Ethereum Reach a Record $80 Million – Decrypt

At first glance it seems to be a certification of sorts, a blockchain version of an identifier to keep track of the art work’s provenance. An authentication certificate more than anything else. In the artworld the story of where a piece was produced and who has owned it since, is an integral part of preserving its authenticity. The token is attached to the piece and hence is non-fungible.

But something is missing from this conceptualization. Fungible has the quality of being able to be exchanged with other goods. The auction activity indicates a product that is very tradeable. Since these NFT’s are bought and sold freely, there seems to be a contradiction. Zoup at non-fungible.com tackles some of the issues.

zoup: I had several passionate debates during Meetups around the definition of non-fungibility. And I must confess… most of these debates turned out to be sterile but, they helped me understand something important: the definition of non-fungibility is everything but obvious.

Zoup explains that bitcoins are fungible in the same way that nickels, dimes, quarters are easily exchanged. A precious coin, however, is something different. To a collector a nickel that was mistruck during production can have significant value. To a collector the deformed nickel is non-fungible. And it is in this way the non-fungible tokens make digit art unique. Hence zoup comes to this conclusion:

It is therefore the use value that defines the fungible or non-fungible character of the asset. And not its technical characteristics. The main use of an asset and the perception that one can have of it define fundamentally if the asset is fungible or not.

Why most definitions of “non-fungible” are incorrect. – NonFungible.com

It is here that I propose a clarification needs to be made. The quality of being fungible, by definition, indicates an attachment to a group, as it is the group which determines its use.

Let’s try to disprove the idea and see what happens. The mistruck nickel is non-fungible when held within the collector group, it is precious, it has a unique story. To a kid who wants a coke on a hot day, the nickel is simply five pennies towards his purchase. He pops the coins into the slot on the side of the machine without another thought. He is using the coin as a fungible asset.

The quality of non-fungibility is attached to transactions that exist within groups. NFT’s find value in the crypt-investors sphere, but I doubt you would find much interest at the local VFW. Outside of this very specific group of people who understand the crypto space, the value goes to zero. I’ve written about fungible versus non-fungible transactions. I claim that when non-fungible assets are held within a group, they are a public good. All investors share equally in the assurance that the tokens represent a unique asset.

When a group assigns a use to an object- a park bench, for example, is open to the public in a park- then the bench is a non-fungible asset (it can’t be rented out or traded by any one individual) that is held by the group. When the crypto people decide to use tokens as identifiers, they’ve created a certification process that legitimizes an artwork by the community. And that is non-fungible.

I’ve said it before. It’s all about the group.

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