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On Thursday, a digital artwork less than a month old hammered for $60.25 million at Christie’s in New York, shattering every previous record set for the medium and pushing the non-fungible token (NFT) market into the price range of blue-chip masterworks. With buyer’s premium the total comes to $69.3 million (about ¥7.5 billion).

A spokesperson for Christie’s declined to name the buyer. Initially it had appeared Justin Sun, founder of cryptocurrency platform Tron, gave the winning bid of $60.25 million according to information provided by a Tron representative. Later, the statement was clarified to say he was outbid at the last minute.

Prior to the sale Noah Davis, a specialist at Christie’s who organized the sale, said that "there have been a handful of really dogged, really serious clients pursuing it, and they are mostly people who are very steeped in crypto.

"Whether that means they’re early investors in crypto, or they run and operate businesses that have significant investment in crypto technology,” he continued, "they’re all very savvy, ‘#online’ people.”

"NFT is definitely a revolution for our generation. Both Justin and Tron Foundation are super excited for the technology and will heavily support the ecosystem development around that,” said Roy Liu, head of business and corporate development at Tron, via email.

"Everydays: the First 5,000 Days" is a mosaic of every image that artist Mike Winkelmann, who goes by the name Beeple, has made since 2013. The artwork is attached to an NFT, a digital certificate of authenticity that runs on blockchain technology. Unlike some of his other artworks, "Everydays" doesn’t come with anything physical (such as a box or a plaque) attached. Bidding opened at $100 on Feb. 25.

A detail shot from the collage
A detail shot from the collage “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” by digital artist Beeple | CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2021 / BEEPLE / VIA REUTERS

"The first day of bidding was one of the most magical events in my auction career,” Davis said. "I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the first eight minutes of bidding, Davis said, about 20 bidders pushed the work to $1 million. "Only three (of the bidders) were known to us previously.”

The sale’s final minutes were even wilder, with bidding and drama that was unprecedented in modern auction history. The closest analog would be the extended bidding that pushed the price of a work by Leonardo Da Vinci to $450 million at Christie’s in 2017.

But that was in an auction room, with an auctioneer, and live bidders. The fight for "Everydays," in contrast, existed exclusively online, and percentage wise at least, had last-minute leaps familiar to anyone watching a hotly contested eBay lot.

An hour before the sale closed, bids were floating at about $14 million; in the last 10 minutes the price jumped to $22 million, then $27 million, then to $35 million, and then, when there were just seconds left on the clock, to $50 million, and then a staggering $60 million. The official hammer was at $60.25 million, plus an extra $9 million for Christie’s.

When Christie’s announced the sale last month, it made waves when it revealed that it would accept cryptocurrency as payment; the caveat was that the buyer’s premium had to be in a traditional currency.

But as the days went on and people continued to push the price even higher, that policy changed.

"We are accepting (a buyer’s premium of) ethereum for this purchase,” Davis said. "I feel like that’s actually the biggest deal of this whole thing, secretly.”

Speaking a day before the sale closed, Davis said he was "90% sure” that the final buyer would be paying in cryptocurrency. Christie’s didn’t immediately confirm if that was the case once the sale concluded.

A previous record set by Beeple, also known as Mike Winkelmann, was set in late February, when a work that someone had purchased just months earlier in October for $66,000 sold for $6.6 million — a 9,900% increase. | SCOTT WINKELMANN / VIA AFP-JIJI
A previous record set by Beeple, also known as Mike Winkelmann, was set in late February, when a work that someone had purchased just months earlier in October for $66,000 sold for $6.6 million — a 9,900% increase. | SCOTT WINKELMANN / VIA AFP-JIJI

Given the wild volatility of cryptocurrencies, Christie’s may be taking a risk accepting its premium in ethereum. The second-biggest digital coin lost 50% of its value on Feb. 22, sinking as low as $700. On Thursday, Ether was trading around $1,815 to the dollar, a roughly 160% growth over the prior week.

This sale is the latest in a whirlwind boom in the market for NFTs. Beeple’s previous record was set in late February, when a work that someone had purchased in October for $66,000 sold for $6.6 million — growth of 9,900%. Before that, his record stood at $777,777.777, which was set in January. A year before that, he hadn’t sold a single piece of artwork.

"We let the market decide what it’s worth, we didn’t push anyone to bid $60.25 million,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art. "People want Beeple, and the market decided.”

"Sixty-nine million dollars in the context of the traditional art market,” explained Rotter, "would be the top piece in most auctions — the top artwork in any sale.”

Indeed, the $69 million price tag isn’t just an unprecedented price for an NFT, it’s an unprecedented price for a new artist. For contrast, major works by giants of art history such as Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso saw sales of "only” $16 million and $15.6 million recently.

"Everydays" is now the third-most expensive artwork by a living artist to sell at auction ever. Only a sculpture by Jeff Koons and a painting by David Hockney are in front of it on the list. The difference, though, is that those two artworks were sold by collectors, meaning that Hockney and Koons didn’t get a cent. "Everydays," in contrast, was consigned by Beeple himself, meaning he will receive all of the $60 million hammer price.

Davis believes this is just the beginning. "It’s a huge shot in the arm for the business generally, when you have a sale result like that,” he said. "I think we will have really compelling and exciting NFT-based art opportunities at Christie’s in the near future.”

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