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The NFT effect on Singapore art

Artists are thrilled with the new way of selling art. Gallerists? Not so much.

In mid-March, just a few days after the earth-shattering auction of Beeple’s US$69.3 million NFT artwork, the Singapore street artist known as Speak Cryptic announced on Facebook that he had just sold his first NFT artwork.

The price? A much more earthbound 0.7 Eth (or Ether, a cryptocurrency), which converts to S$1,485 at press time. The buyer? A stranger who goes by the handle GorudoKai. The work? A black-and-white digital drawing of a humanoid with a vegetal head. The platform? An NFT marketplace called Cargo that’s not even a year old.

As one of the first Singapore artists to sell an NFT (non-fungible token) artwork, Speak Cryptic was thrilled. He had spent weeks “going down the NFT rabbit hole, studying, reading, watching, testing”. And to have his first NFT artwork successfully sold means that there’s now another potential source of income for the freelancer.

The artist, whose real name is Farizwan Fajari, says: “I’m not going to cash out on my Ether. I’m keeping it for now – in case its value goes up by much more.”

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    (Left) The actual physical painting of Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine's Abstract Composition (1926) will be sold on Mintable and shipped to the winning bidder, who will also own the NFT-authenticated digital image of the painting. Its starting bid is 6.5 Eth. (Right) Speak Cryptic's Hold The Line is one of the first digital artworks by a Singaporean artist to be sold as an NFT.

Ether, a cryptocurrency of the blockchain Ethereum, has certainly been going up. In March 2020, one Ether was worth just over S$200. In late-March 2021, one Ether is worth over S$2,000. Though its rise appears to be not as astronomical as Bitcoin’s (which is worth over S$70,000 at press time), both are worth several times what they were a year ago.

For days after the sale, Speak Cryptic was bombarded with messages and phone calls “from good friends as well as people I haven’t spoken to for years. They wanted to know how it’s done so they can do it too. And since I believe in sharing information, I’ve patiently explained the process to anyone who asks”.

(In case you too are wondering, the artist recommends the NFT site Cargo as the cheapest and most idiot-proof way of creating, managing and selling your creative works.)

(Related: Rarely seen Paris Van Gogh sells for over 13 million euros)

NFT platforms booming

Meanwhile, blockchain solutions and platforms for selling NFTs are exploding in popularity.

According to the Association of Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Enterprises and Start-ups Singapore (ACCESS), membership has risen to 400 now, an average increase of 25 per cent year-on-year, since 2014.

In the past three months, Singapore-registered firm Ecomi and its NFT marketplace VeVe saw its user base increase by some 11,225 per cent to over 86,000.

A Mark Cuban-backed Singapore startup called Mintable reports that in the last month (February 2021), its user numbers grew by about 20 per cent everyday, to about 65,000 now. In that same month, 70,000 NFTs were created and listed for sale on the site.

Mintable’s CEO Zach Burks says: “Even before the recent Beeple news, we were growing tremendously for two months – in terms of user numbers and transactions, the number of emails we’re getting, the number of companies who want to partner with us, and the number of special NFT projects that want to be incorporated with Mintable . . . So, yeah, it’s been crazy.”

And while most of its NFTs for sale are by unknown artists and priced in the region of a few hundred dollars, Mintable is hoping to up the ante with its current auction of works by Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine (1888 – 1944), a prolific Ukrainian-born avant garde artist whose works can be found in notable public collections, such as those of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The highlight of the auction is an actual 1926 painting titled Abstract Composition, with a starting bid of 6.5 Eth (or S$13,685). The highest bidder will obtain the actual painting, as well as the NFT-authenticated digital representation of the painting. Other works in the auction include nine purely digital NFT representations of Baranoff-Rossine’s artworks, with starting bids of 1.32 Eth (or S$2,736).

Mr Burks says: “The grandson of Baranoff-Rossine, also named Wladimir, is an entrepreneur in his own right, and very up-to-speed with blockchain and crypto. He wanted to experiment with NFTs as a way of taking his grandfather’s legacy to a next level. So he reached out to us to do a kind of auction that’s never been done before – selling both the physical artwork and its NFT at the same time.”

Digital art finally ‘sellable’

Since the record-setting auction of Beeple’s work at Christie’s, NFTs have captured imaginations everywhere. But it’s perhaps even more so in Singapore where it was revealed that the buyer is Singapore-based India-born crypto entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan who goes by the handle Metakovan.

Like many crypto entrepreneurs, Mr Vignesh moved to Singapore because he was drawn to its welcoming environment for blockchain firms. He paid 42,329.453 Eth for the Beeple artwork, which amounted to US$69.3 million then – the highest sum of money ever paid for a digital work, and the third highest ever for an auctioned artwork by a living artist.

Since then, many artists well-versed in digital illustration tools have been excited by the new method of selling works. For a long time, many of these artists have “given away for free” their artworks online, in order to build their reputations and expand their followings on social media. They have no control over the fact that other people can simply copy their image files for personal use.

NFTs are changing some of that by allowing any digital creation to be connected to a non-fungible token (NFT), which serves as its certificate of authenticity recorded via blockchain technology. As the work can now be authenticated, it can be sold and traded like any physical object. Although people can still copy the digital file and use it, they cannot claim ownership of the work – only the buyer has bragging rights.

Howie Kim, for one, welcomes the news. He is one of Singapore’s most popular artists online, with an Instagram following of over 104,000. (His IG handle is @howie759). His cute, kitschy, candy-coloured images have an international fanbase of millennials and Gen Zs, who give his posts as many as over 25,000 enthusiastic likes.

But he has not been able to monetise the nearly 300 digital images he’s produced for Instagram.

Kim says: “I haven’t made and sold an actual painting in quite a few years. I’ve been making my living from doing commercial work for clients such as Universal Music Group, Shiseido and IWC Schaffhausen, designing album covers, product illustrations, event posters, and such.

“But I’m definitely checking out this new platform, because it holds the promise of greater creative freedom.”

(Related: Women art collectors spent more than men in 2020)

Gallerists sound caution

But while artists are stoked, gallerists are watching the developments carefully and advising their artists and collectors accordingly.

Long-time art adviser Jimmy Chua is telling his collectors to hold off while the NFT market steadies itself. “There’s no telling what value these works will hold just a few years from now,” he says. Other gallerists such as Khai Hori and Terry Lee are discussing with the artists they represent how best to explore the new world of NFTs.

Mr Lee, the owner and founder of the 20-year-old gallery Art Seasons, believes that “with or without their gallerists, some artists will cross over in the NFT realm. So gallerists must prepare to deal with NFTs in one form or another, because artists would want new ways of showcasing and selling their works.

“If you ask me, it should be a clearly differentiated way of doing business altogether, because the way NFT is sold is very different from the way art is being sold now.”

Will artists be tempted to skip their galleries altogether and sell the works online themselves? Mr Lee thinks it’s possible, but considering the vast ocean of NFTs available on an ever-increasing number of platforms, many artists would still want to turn to galleries to showcase their works in the flesh and draw institutional collectors to their shows.

In the past year, Mr Lee has been discussing with Phunk, a well-known artist collective his gallery represents, about what Phunk can do in order to ride the NFT wave: “We have some ideas but we’re still watching the market to see how feasible they are. The thing is, NFTs and cryptocurrency still have an acceptability issue in many countries. It’ll be a while before most collectors fully embrace the concept, as well as the risks, of owning digital art.”

His concerns are many. For instance, should a company that issues the NFTs go out of business, buyers could be left with NFTs that point to blank pages. Even Mintable’s CEO Burks admits this could happen – though his firm guarantees the validity of all NFTs for 10 years, and also gives you the option of hosting the work on your own chosen platform.

Traditionalists don’t get it . . .

Asst Professor Michelle Lim, who teaches art history at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media, says collecting NFTs may seem risky to some traditional collectors because of the absence of a physical object.

But it would feel entirely natural to the younger generations of digital natives who are used to consuming art and entertainment in digital formats without having a CD or DVD in their hands.

Prof Lim, who previously worked at an auction house, says: “Not everyone who buys art is an art lover. At the highest level of art buying, it’s a high-stakes money game where not many people are invited to sit at the table.

“Art can be a way of moving big sums of money around. And NFTs now offer another way of moving money around easily. In fact, NFTs are even easier to trade than actually having to roll up a canvas, put it in a suitcase and get it on a plane. It’s even easier than having to sell a house or a car.”

“The beauty of NFTs is that it leaves behind a digital trail for authentication. And if artists start to create spectacular digital artworks that many people want to own, they can become a valuable part of anyone’s portfolio.”

Asked what she thought about Beeple’s US$69 million artwork (which has been criticised for containing sexist and racist images), she replied: “The quality of the art may be beside the point. When a person has as much money as Metakovan does in cryptocurrency, he can decide what he thinks is good art. He doesn’t need curators to tell him it’s good art. Just as cryptocurrency is ostensible value created out of thin air, Metakovan is creating value for a not-yet-famous artist – and himself – because he can. It’s entirely aligned with the spirit of the times.”

She concludes: “History is rife with examples of people paying a lot of money for certain artworks just to show they can. Remember Damien Hirst’s shark? This is classic conspicuous consumption. This is a Kardashian world.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

(Related: Travel the world through the arts)