Famed auction house Christie's wasn't exactly sure what kind of demand it was going to see when it announced a $100 starting price for its first-ever digital art auction by way of a non-fungible token, or NFT, in February.
Three weeks later, it had an answer worth $69 million.
A bidding war exploded Thursday to close at a final price of $69.35 million on a collage of work, dubbed "Everydays: The First 5000 Days," from rising digital artist Beeple (also known as Mike Winkelmann.) As Christie's Contemporary Art Specialist Noah Davis explained, nothing he's seen before "even comes close."
"The first 10 minutes of this sale we had more than 100 bids placed. We went from an opening bid of $100 to more than $1 million. We had bidders from seven different countries," Davis told Yahoo Finance Live. "What's a really compelling stat, and probably the most amazing to me, is only three of those bidders were previously known to Christie's, so everyone else was brand new."
.@beeple 's 'The First 5000 Days', the 1st purely digital NFT based artwork offered by a major auction house has sold for $69,346,250, positioning him among the top three most valuable living artists. Major Thanks to @beeple + @makersplaceco. More details to be released shortly
— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) March 11, 2021
That might not be terribly surprising, given how many people are still learning about NFTs and how the digital tokens function to digitize ownership of assets on blockchains. The tech has enabled verifiable digital ownership and the resale of anything from digital art, to NBA highlights that have re-sold for thousands of dollars on platform NBA Top Shot. Even the artist himself, Beeple only recently catapulted to mainstream fame after one of his other art works, a 10-second clip of people walking by a nude Donald Trump, re-sold for $6.6 million after selling for just over $66,000 four months prior.
This digital art piece which originally sold for $66,666 in October was just resold on the Nifty Gateway secondary market for $6.6 million. A 9900% return in less than 4 months.
The NFT art marketplace is insane! pic.twitter.com/Jvv8cCHRj2
— Zack Guzman (@zGuz) February 25, 2021
So why pay for digital art that anyone can view, download, or embed elsewhere for free on the internet? As Beeple and other digital artists have tried to explain: anyone can take a picture of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, but that doesn't prove ownership of the Mona Lisa in the same way owning an NFT attached to the art piece can. Unlike physical art, ownership cannot be proven merely by possession, which is why the public history of an uneditable blockchain presents real value for digital art that can be readily copied.
"NFTs have a lot of very interesting and unique properties," Davis said. "It establishes scarcity, it solves for the question of authenticity testing, there's no way to forge this artwork."
Critics might point out that NFTs are still a bit detached from a true sense of ownership. In the case of many NFT sales, commercial ownership for works of art remain with the original artists. NBA Top Shot's NFTs for collectible video highlights also don't give collectors commercial rights, either (the NBA retains those.) But to many, any sense of ownership is better than none and its given rise for an entirely new way of digital artists like Beeple to make money off of previously less valuable projects.
"I know that so many people are going to feel empowered to be creative with their digital art works," Davis said about the first Christie's NFT auction, adding that more could follow. "We are going to have a lot more responsibility in this space to curate our content thoughtfully and to offer only the best of the best to the audience we have."
The First 5000 Days auction, which consists of one NFT for a digital photo collage of every daily art piece from Beeple's consecutive run of 5,000 days, closed at a final price of $69,346,250. The auction also marks the first time Christie's planned to accept cryptocurrency as a form of payment.
This article was originally published on March 10, 2021.
Zack Guzman is an anchor for Yahoo Finance Live as well as a senior writer covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, cryptocurrency, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.