Throwing away millions: when art collectors underestimated NFTs

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Who would have known, in 2017, that non-fungible tokens (NFTs) would explode the way they did. People would have been more protective of the free NFT coupons that digital artist Robbie Barrat gave away for free, at Christie’s, unlike most guests that day who threw them in the trash, not realizing they would be worth soon millions of dollars.

Barrat, then still a teenager, had been invited by the London auction house to talk about the rise of online art. As part of the presentation, he presented the crowd with 300 cards, each with a code that entitled them to a digital artwork he had created using artificial intelligence.

This was before the NFT market exploded last year, and so only about 20 guests bothered to keep their small cards.

Barrat later salvaged many of them from trash cans and the ground.

On March 2 of this year, just one of these works, “Nude Portrait#7Frame#64”, was sold at Sotheby’s for 630,000 pounds ($821,000).

AI combat

Barrat, now 22, had worked with AI since high school in the United States.

He created his images by downloading 10,000 images of classic art nudes to his computer, then using two competing AI programs to distort them.

“My interest was: can I use this tool to do something that is not classic?” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in a video interview.

The method is known as “generative adversarial networks” (GANs): two neural networks that compete with each other using algorithms.

“(They) kind of fight each other,” Barrat said, adding that he deliberately added glitches to the programs to make the end results more interesting.

The result was a series of shapeless “nudes”, unsettling masses of reddish and brown tones that resemble paintings by Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon.

Visual artist vonMash poses for a portrait in his studio as he covers his face with artwork commissioned by famed DJ Black Coffee, in Springs, South Africa, on February 7, 2022. (AFP Photo )

“Don’t Throw This Away”

Barrat was invited to speak at Christie’s by art collector Jason Bailey, known in the crypto art world as Artnome, one of the pioneers of the NFT market.

“Nobody knew what an NFT was back then,” Bailey told AFP.

He asked Barrat to create credit card-sized coupons for the presentation, each with a code giving access to an NFT stored online using blockchain technology, which guarantees unique ownership rights. to anyone who has the code.

“I was telling everyone from the stage, ‘This is the future. Don’t throw that card away.'” Bailey recalled with a smile. “But these people were traditional art collectors. They were just like, ‘Who is that wacky guy on stage…no one collects digital art.'”

“I am not interested”

Today, the works of Robbie Barrat are very rare, to the point of being nicknamed the “Lost Robbies”.

And the NFT market has gone wild, with total sales estimated at $44.2 billion in 2021 according to analytics firm Chainalysis.

But despite his financial success, Barrat was deeply disillusioned with the experience.

“Over the last few years what I’ve seen with my work is that nobody really talks about the image itself. All they talk about is the price,” he said .

A customer waits in line at the grand opening of pop-up restaurant Bored & Hungry, which uses NFT art for its branding, in Long Beach, California, United States, on April 9, 2022. (AFP Photo)

A customer waits in line at the grand opening of pop-up restaurant Bored & Hungry, which uses NFT art for its branding, in Long Beach, California, United States, on April 9, 2022. (AFP Photo)

Barrat continues to experiment with AI, but says he no longer intends to sell his work on the NFT marketplace.

“I really don’t like the NFT space right now. Unless it changes, I’m not interested. Also because of the environmental issues associated with it,” he said.

There are widespread concerns about the large amounts of energy required to maintain the blockchain and operate cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin which are used for many NFT transactions.

Four years after the strange episode at Christie’s, Bailey is still defending the merits of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, especially since they allow artists to collect payments with each resale of their work – unlike the market of the traditional art.

But he added: “I totally understand and appreciate Robbie’s desire to distance himself from NFTs. NFTs aren’t for all artists at this point. Especially when they’re so polarizing they overshadow the art itself. .”

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