Crypto art goes mainstream as Beeple's digital canvas sells for R1bn

The record-setting sale of a work that exists purely online has shaken up the art industry, writes Jessica Brodie

21 March 2021 - 00:01
By Jessica Brodie
'Everydays: The First 5000 Days' by digital artist Beeple recently sold for a record price.
Image: Beeple 'Everydays: The First 5000 Days' by digital artist Beeple recently sold for a record price.

Last week crypto art went mainstream with the sale of a digital collage by an artist named Beeple. The artwork sold in an online auction for $69.4m (about R1bn), an unprecedented amount for a purely digital artwork.

The sale of the piece, titled Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, was heralded by Christie's as "positioning him [Beeple] among the top three most valuable living artists".

What's more, this is the first time that a major auction house has offered a non-fungible token (NFT) as a guarantee of its authenticity, as well as allowing a cryptocurrency to be used to pay for the work at auction.

This marks the unlikely intersection between cryptocurrencies and art, probably the two things that are the most difficult to understand. But let's try — because who are we
to stand in the way of change?

First of all, non-fungible tokens.

Digital artists embed a marker, called an NFT, into digital art works to create artificial scarcity. Although the image can still be reproduced and recreated, only the file with the NFT embedded in it, is the original (and valuable) version. They are a digital certificate of ownership and authenticity.

The NFT is embedded using blockchain technology, which is an online ledger that cannot be altered. Blockchain is the infrastructure that underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.


Digital artist Michael Winkelmann hails from South Carolina in the US.

For his pseudonym, he chose to name himself after a 1980s furry toy called Beeple.

He previously worked as a graphic designer and animator, creating concert visuals for performing artists such as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Childish Gambino and Nicki Minaj.

Other clients include Elon Musk's SpaceX and Apple.


For artists trying to make a living from their work, this solves some of the fundamental problems of monetising art. The elitism of the art community creates a barrier to entry for rising artists and is equally hard to navigate for new consumers.

But once art is online it's easily downloaded and reproduced, making it impossible to price. The NFT embedded in digital works makes sales possible, and democratic, with art selling at every price point.

These sales are bringing together diverse communities of artists, some of which have been making art without the support of peers in these isolated times.

Crypto artists from every part of the globe gather in virtual meeting spaces, including in an Ethereum blockchain-powered virtual world called Cryptovoxels, an online space entirely dedicated to art.

The conversations and collaborations that these platforms give rise to create ways for artists to rethink traditional economies of art.

Indeed, spaces like exist purely as a collaborative crypto art-making space and include a financial mechanism to reward co-operation.

Crypto art is not only a space in which art can be digitised, but is becoming synonymous with its own style of art, as an art movement in its own right. Crypto artists work in a range of digital mediums, including generative art, digital illustration, glitch/gif art, video collage, AI (artificial intelligence) art, and most recently art works made in virtual reality. The intangible art works are all underpinned by NFTs, but they range infinitely beyond that.

Earlier in March, a Banksy work was destroyed and replaced with a digital version. The work, named Morons (white), was bought for $95,000 before being burnt and replaced online with a digital copy embedded with an NFT. It was then sold for $382,336, more than four times the original price.

 'Morons (white)' by Banksy.
Image: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Sotheby's 'Morons (white)' by Banksy.

Earlier in the year the artist and musician Grimes sold a collection of short video pieces, entitled WarNymph Collection Vol 1, for $6m in a 20-minute Twitter auction.

The use of NFTs is set to jump mainstream next. The band Kings of Leon has released a digital album with NFTs embedded in a limited number of them, aimed at creating a collectable limited release of the online recording.

The NBA is also capitalising on the technology, selling tokens of video clips featuring the starry likes of LeBron James and Maxi Kleber.


Gallery Worldart is about to become the first local dealer to offer NFT art on auction.

The work on auction is by local artist Norman O'Flynn and is a moving image based on his painted series Timekeeper.

Charl Bezuidenhout, owner of the gallery, told Business Insider: "Norman is a very entrepreneurial artist, and his art is connected to a very contemporary interpretation of pop art, whether it's the use of graphic novels or commenting on society."

Bezuidenhout estimates that based on prices fetched by physical paintings, the NFT could go for between R60,000 and R100,000.

He has approached four NFT marketplaces to facilitate the auction, including SuperRare, which is rated as the second-highest online auction platform by cumulative value of artworks sold, with 511 sales bringing in over R60m in the past two weeks.