Last month, while strolling through the cavernous glass-ceilinged rotunda of the British Museum, I walked into the gift shop and saw something that prompted me to do a double take. Between the souvenir umbrellas and postcards was a sign that read ‘Visit our NFT store’ and a QR code. Near the checkered line, I came across display cases with prints by Katsushika Hokusai, the respected nineteenth-century Japanese artist. One had a label stating that the 1833 woodcut was made in a non-fungible token or NFT edition and had been purchased in January 2022 by a collector using the alias pixeldrip.eth for just over $4,000. “Scan to see our latest drops,” the label read. Never mind that the majority of visitors probably have no idea what all these terms mean. What were digital replicas of an Edo-era artist doing in one of the world’s most famous museums, prominently displayed as if they were valuable works of art in their own right?
The British Museum’s NFT offering was created 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 NFT’s collection; the company will also soon announce a partnership with a US institution. LaCollection aims 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 that now also work from JMW Turner ($1,000-$9,400) and Piranesi ($520-$2,100) experience from the museum online.” The British Museum, of course, already makes commercial replicas of the artwork it owns, that’s what the gift shop is for. But the aura of authenticity and rarity that NFTs create puts the products in a different category. According to a British Museum spokesperson, “Each NFT is in a sense completely unique and as a result very different from something like a poster or T-shirt.”
It goes without saying that Hokusai never created digital art. Neither did JMW Turner or Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who commemorated ancient Rome in his famous etchings and died in 1778. But the British Museum’s offerings have made them all part of new efforts to capitalize on artists’ work posthumously through the craze. to embrace NFT. collect under the cryptocurrency nouveau riche. Last year, digital artwork originally created by Andy Warhol was converted 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 newfangled products can create new revenue streams or at the very least attract new attention. The British Museum’s NFTs were launched at a time when fewer people had physical access to the museum due to the pandemic. “They realized that NFTs were perfect marketing tools for reaching these communities that they haven’t reached until now,” Beaucamps said, adding that the NFT scene is “much younger,” “a little more masculine” and more international than art museums. usual audience. The museum receives a commission on each NFT sale and a percentage of the secondary market fees. The British Museum declined to comment on the revenue generated so far, but has planned a series of new editions later this year.
Creating new work by a deceased artist is usually taboo in the art world. Posthumously produced prints sell for less than what an artist personally supervised during her lifetime. The British Museum has produced NFT editions at varying levels from ‘scarcity’ to ‘ultra rare’, but such labels have nothing to do with the size or delivery of the original artworks. Somewhat in contrast, a project from American painter Lee Mullican’s estate attempts to use NFTs as a way to package digital-native art. Last year, Cole Root, the estate’s director, decided to sell NFTs of some digital pieces that Mullican had created in the 1980s using computer software, but never printed to his satisfaction in his lifetime. “It’s easy to assume he’d get a kick out of his job going through network screens,” Root said of Mullican. Root has partnered with an NFT firm called Verisart, which has worked with artists such as Roe Ethridge, Quayola and Rob Pruitt. Releasing the late painter’s obscure digital works as blockchain artifacts has a certain logic that some of the other posthumous efforts lack. The Mullican NFTs, which cost about an ether or two thousand dollars, come with a title contract, a certificate of authenticity and an original source file of the piece (although technology cannot guarantee that such materials will remain connected to the NFT artwork if used). resold). Root told me that he doesn’t see the Mullican NFTs as a repetition of a work of art in itself, but as “the frame or crate that holds the art.”
Julian Sander, a great-grandson of German photographer August Sander, sees things even more grim. “I’m against the idea that the NFT itself is something valuable,” he said. “It’s basically worthless; it is literally just a bookmark for information.” Nevertheless, in February of this year, Julian began what amounts to an experiment in digital, collective archiving when he gave away ten thousand NFTs worth of contact prints of his ancestor’s work. Born in 1876 and died in 1964, August Sander is best known for his extensive typological portrait series ‘People of the 20th Century’. The NFTs are images of physical prints that the Sander family created and annotated over generations to organize the artist’s oeuvre from negatives. Julian runs Galerie Julian Sander in Cologne, which shows photography, but he has also been a programmer since childhood and built inventory software for art collections. He noticed the NFT boom in 2020 and started working with a photography NFT organization called the Fellowship. The technology “provides a Wikipedia-like opportunity to merge information from different sources into one place that becomes permanent and openly available,” Sander told me. “My goal was to put the history of August Sander’s work, as my family has researched it over four generations, in a place that everyone can access.”