Beeple makes history: What does $88.6 million worth of digital art actually look like?

A section of Beeple's The First 5000 Days. Source: Christie's.

A piece of digital artwork, existing only on the blockchain, has sold for a whopping US$69 million ($88.6 million) at Christie’s auction house.

It is the first time Christie’s has ever accepted payment in cryptocurrency — in this case Ether, in addition to a more traditional form of payment.

The buyer doesn’t get anything physical, just a few lines of code and some bragging rights.

So, what’s going on here? And what’s the point?

A very unique investment

The piece in question is a mural of sorts, by digital artist Mike Winkelmann (better known as Beeple). The artist creates one piece of art per day and this work, titled The First 5000 Days, includes 5000 images representing about 13 years worth of work.

It’s not only the first piece of digital art sold by the revered Christie’s auction house, but the first sold by any major auction house.

The First 5000 Days exists entirely and only as a non-fungible token (NFT) — a type of cryptography token that represents something absolutely unique.

The tokens are secured on the Ethereum blockchain and cannot be copied or modified, essentially acting as virtual deeds of ownership. They can also only have one owner at any given time. This is distinct from fungible digital assets such as Bitcoin, which can be traded and exchanged as currency.

Collectors can use the tokens to verify the authenticity of the asset — whether that’s art, music or a movie reel. Kings of Leon released its latest album on a NFT as a collectible, and a LeBron James basketball clip on an NFT recently sold for US$280,000.

Essentially, the tokens are investments like any other. In the case of Beeple’s artwork, the asset will likely increase in value — especially given the historic nature of the sale.

There is precedent here too. In October 2020, Beeple reportedly sold a 10-second video clip to an art collector for US$67,000. Months later, in February 2021, that collector sold the piece for US$6.6 million.

Digital art boom

So, is digital art sneaking into the mainstream? Arguably, it already has. There are plenty of digital artists out there with huge fan bases. Their work is all created and displayed digitally, and is already trading hands on the blockchain.

The difference now: the dollar figures are getting higher.

Beeple, for his part, says he almost considers himself a “political cartoonist”. “Except instead of doing sketches, I’m using the most advanced 3D tools to make comments on current events, almost in real time,” he told Christie’s for a blog post about the sale.

That blog post points to recurring themes in the piece including “society’s obsession with and fear of technology; the desire for and resentment of wealth; and America’s recent political turbulence”.

“The individual pieces are organised in loose chronological order: zooming in reveals pictures by turn abstract, fantastical, grotesque or absurd, deeply personal or representative of current events.”

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