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Fine art auction house Sotheby’s accepts cryptocurrency payments for the first time

Bitcoin, Ether and good ol’ US dollars are all fair game to pay off the hammer price for a Banksy.

Cryptocurrencies aren’t dead. Or at the very least, no longer volatile or arcane enough to be considered a flash in the pan, an isolated profundity in a decade of profundities, or an elaborate prank that the rest of the world just hasn’t caught up on. It might even be here to stay – or evolve, as cryptocurrencies’ metamorphosis into cryptoassets vis-a-vis non-fungible token (NFT) art. 

The tokens identify art pieces as unique and authentic with the help of some blockchain wizardry, thereby driving up the value of what’s essentially data. More than that though, the digital medium affords artists creative freedoms they previously weren’t.  Think audio, moving images and more – and of course, lots of memes. 

With nouveau art, comes nouveau arthouses. The likes of Nifty Gateway and Opensea appeared like clockwork to tap on unmet demand for digital art – unmet demand that resulted in some pretty hefty sales.

(Related: An AI bot is making Banksy-inspired art)

Legacy auction houses, not to be outdone, have made some ground. After all, the heftiest NFT sale of all (so far) was offered at Christie’s for some US$69.3 million (S$92.5 million). Sotheby’s has made headway as well – their debut NFT sale with enigmatic cryptoartist Pak saw more than 3,000 unique collectors, netting the British-founded American arthouse around US$17 million (S$22.7 million) from ‘The Fungible Collection’.

Now, they’re flipping it around – a Banksy oeuvre that’s very much physical is going under the hammer, though it can be paid, for the first time, in crypto. That is, Bitcoin or Ether – though US dollars are still acceptable – via a collaboration with Coinbase Commerce.

It’s only natural to disrupt the centuries-old auction market in tandem with the sale of a disruptive artist – though calling Banksy disruptive doesn’t necessarily cut it. The artist, whose identity has never been revealed, stirs controversy endlessly including a couple of infamous pranks like shredding a painting moments after it was sold at auction. 

(Related: [Watch] Banksy artwork shreds itself after selling for 1 million pounds at auction)

As for this piece, Love is in the Air is the embodiment of Banksy’s penchant for commentary (and often quirky sense of humour). Here, he depicts a protestor, arm cocked back in preparation to hurl what protestors hurl at who they’re protesting at – though in this case, he’s holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It’s a simple message, but one worth delivering.

Chief Technology Officer of Sotheby’s Stefan Pepe says, “With the growing adoption of digital arts and NFTs, along with our increased focus on digital innovation, we’ve seen an increasing appetite among collectors for more seamless payments when doing business with Sotheby’s.”

While cryptocurrency will only be made a payment option for this upcoming lot, pundits for cryptoassets are sure to read the move as a sign of shifting times – where digital assets are worth just as much as physical ones.

(Related: An art expert’s take on NFT art and the nascent digital marketspace)