Michelangelo drew inspiration from the Greco-Roman statues of Classical antiquity to sculpt his masterpiece David. Van Gogh paid homage to the vibrant colors in the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Great artworks of the past live beyond their creators to inspire great artworks of the future. Digital art and NFTs are no exception.
But there’s a difference between drawing inspiration from art history and drawing over historical art. Now, as the NFT market continues to gain traction in the mainstream art world, some people are using the opportunity to create NFTs based on famous works from the past. In some cases, these NFTs are even being bundled with the originals.
This brings up a few important questions: Would attaching an NFT to a physical artwork alter the value of the original? Is there any real utility for an NFT linked to a historic artwork? And who has the right to mint an NFT of an artist’s work when the original artist is long-deceased?
These are just some of the flashpoints that are bound to spur furious debate as the era of blockchain-based art unfolds. While traditionalists may protest the degradation of the Old Masters, there’s no denying that NFTs are creating new opportunities for the monetization and distribution of art. Whether that’s a good thing remains unknown at this early juncture. But one thing’s for sure — it won’t be boring.
Just take the case of Spring Sunshine, an 1865 painting said to be the work of Claude Monet (1840-1926) that’s up for sale this week. The French painter was in the vanguard of the Impressionists, a movement that changed the course of Western art. Like many of his peers, Monet favored painting outdoors to capture the ethereal visual effects of shifting light. This was in stark opposition to the more realistic studio paintings which dominated the early to mid-19th century art scene. In recent decades, Monet’s paintings of haystacks and water lilies have fetched record sums at auctions.
The Monet NFT
On July 28, a Rarible user with the handle “@ImpressionistNFTs” minted an NFT of a work called “Spring Sunshine.” The description on Rarible says that the NFT is linked to Monet’s original, physical “Spring Sunshine.” The buyer of the NFT will be able to organize transfer of the physical artwork, which is currently in a storage facility. The auction’s starting price is set to be just under $2M. The project is not collaborating with any museums for the release, and the physical painting is privately owned.
This sounded alarms. It’s clear that the Monet NFT is intended to promote the sale of the original physical artwork. But why not just sell the physical artwork directly?
As it happens, the authenticity of Spring Sunshine is in question. The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, a respected organization that published Monet’s definitive catalogue raisonné, has not included the artwork in the catalogue and has no plans to include the painting in future editions of the publication, according to an Aug. 10 article on Artnet.
A catalogue raisonné is an annotated, comprehensive list of all an artist’s known works in a particular medium. The fine art business depends on catalogue raisonnés to establish authenticity and provenance,which influences the market prices of great works. Due to Spring Sunshine’s lack of inclusion in the Wildenstein catalogue, most auction houses will probably refuse to handle the work. Artnet highlights Spring Sunshine’s purported provenance, including moves from Cuba to Mexico to Florida, over the decades.
Ariel Deschapell, the entrepreneur behind Innovation Without Borders LLC, the cryptocurrency consultancy company that’s marketing the Monet NFT, told The Defiant that other experts have found the painting to be genuine. He also challenged the authority of the Wildenstein’s imprimatur on Monet’s catalog.
“While the Wildenstein Institute no doubt possesses a massive collection of data and documentation in regards to the works of Monet, they have shown that their catalogue time and again, including by both explicit and implicit admission, to not be any kind of reasonable canonical authority on the exhaustive works of Monet,” Deschapell said.
In any event, the questions around the sale of Spring Sunshine in NFT and physical form will only fan skepticism of the legitimacy of fine art NFTs. Critics often decry NFTs as a bubble to make money from the gullible, or worse, a means of laundering dirty money and avoiding taxes. Law enforcement authorities have long found fine art to be an effective means of hiding ill-gotten wealth. In June, for instance, federal agents found 47 paintings by masters including Picasso, Renoir, and Dalí in the house of a convicted drug dealer, according to a report in The New York Times. So why not NFTs? Though NFTs do have the benefit of an immutable record of sale on a blockchain.
Still, most NFTs correspond exclusively to the ownership of digital goods. An NFT linked to a physical object, like a painting, needs to provide extra value or functionality beyond just “digital ownership.” Otherwise, the NFT is effectively meaningless.
Deschapell said that his larger goal was the creation of an on-chain Claude Monet NFT collection that functions as a catalogue raisonné for tokenized Monet paintings.
“With NFT collections and blockchain, we hope to take the first step in transforming and disrupting the traditional catalogue model with a transparent and open alternative,” said Deschapell. “The NFT collection and NFT itself will track the new digital provenance of the NFT going forward.”
But for ImpressionistNFTs to build a worthwhile digital catalogue raisonné of Monet paintings, the player would need to actively collaborate with museums and private collectors on an ongoing basis. Put simply, a catalogue raisonné with a single work is meaningless, especially when it’s not helmed by a known expert or curator in the art world.
In fact, for some time now, established galleries and auction houses have been working with tech companies like Artory and Verisart that aim to record the provenance and condition of physical paintings on the blockchain. To date, no single solution has caught on as industry standard. It’s unclear what ImpressionistNFTs is aiming to do that isn’t already available.
Moreover, Monet’s artwork has been in the public domain since 1996, meaning that anyone could theoretically replicate a Monet NFT. Beyond an initial sale transferring the physical artwork, the NFT only gives ownership of @ImpressionistNFTs’ digital picture of the painting. As such, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for prospective buyers to keep the NFT linked to the physical painting during future sales.
Deschapell hopes that a prospective buyer would keep the artwork linked to the NFT, but ultimately chalks the project up as an experiment. “Is there value in the NFT without the physical painting? Will the value proposition forever remain entwined? Could the NFT, with the attached benefits of the transparent catalogue raisonne we are developing, eventually surpass the value of the original physical work? We’re excited to find out,” he said.
Museums Join the Fray
As it happens, Deschapell and ImpressionistNFTs aren’t the only ones looking to give Monet the NFT treatment.
Last month, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, announced it will sell a series of NFTs entitled “Your token is kept in the Hermitage.” These NFTs, based on art in the Hermitage’s physical collection, will include Monet’s “Corner of the Garden at Montgeron,” Van Gogh’s “Lilac Bush,” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna Litta.”
Each NFT will be signed by the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and released as an edition of two — one to be held and digitally displayed by the museum, and the other set for auction on Binance NFT marketplace in August.
To be clear, these NFTs are not linked to any claims of ownership of any physical artworks in the Hermitage collection. Rather, the museum is viewing them as independent digital artworks due to the addition of Piotrovsky’s signature.
“Since NFTs exist, we need to try them,” said Piotrovsky in a statement to The Art Newspaper. “We’re not looking at it as a way of making money. It’s not clear how one can earn from this. Maybe it’s not possible. But it’s interesting for us because it’s a new form of people’s relationship with art.”
Considering the Hermitage NFTs have no attachment to the physical originals, they function similarly to any other item sold in a museum gift shop. You can buy Van Gogh’s work on a mug or a shirt or a puzzle. Now, you can also buy it as an NFT.
“I don’t think anybody thinks they’re going to own Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Lilacs,’” Elliot Safra, the founder of creative art agency AndArt Agency and a former executive at Christie’s, told The Defiant. “You’re basically doing it because the Hermitage is saying this is our first-ever minted NFT collection, and we want you to support the museum. It almost matters less what the image is than who is putting it out there.”
Other museums are looking to tap NFTs as a new source of revenue and a new form of creative expression.
In May, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, sold its first NFT of Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” to support operations after revenue from museum-goers dropped due to the Covid pandemic. The NFT sold for $170k, and now the fabled museum plans to make more based on other pieces from their collection. These include Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” Caravaggio’s “Bacchus,” and Raphael’s “Madonna del Granduca.”
The Whitworth gallery at the University of Manchester in England is also experimenting with NFTs as part of their upcoming Economics the Blockbuster exhibition. It explores alternative ways of living with an eye towards economic and social change. As part of the project, the Whitworth minted 50 editions of an NFT of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days.” Income raised from sales of the NFT will be used to fund social projects, and sales activity surrounding the NFTs will be tracked for two years and included as part of the physical exhibition, which is set to open in Summer 2023.
When it comes to NFTs, especially those produced from a late artist’s work, context matters.
In May 2021, The Andy Warhol Foundation sold a series of five digital Warhol pieces as NFTs through Christie’s auction house. Interestingly, these NFTs corresponded to never-before-sold digital pieces that Warhol created in the mid-’80s on his Amiga personal computer with a rudimentary paint program. These digital originals couldn’t practically be sold before blockchain technology enabled true digital ownership.
The catch: The NFTs being auctioned at Christie’s still weren’t quite Warhol’s originals.
As pointed out by Golan Levin, the director of the Creative Inquiry lab for art, technology, and culture research at Carnegie Mellon University, Warhol’s work was developed on the Amiga at 320×200 resolution, which was standard due to technological limitations at the time. The versions auctioned at Christie’s, however, were upscaled from the originals in high-resolution with dimensions of 6000×4500. In other words, these Warhol NFTs being sold by the Warhol Foundation, despite being based on never-before-sold digital originals, were technically altered pseudo-copies.
That said, Andy Warhol was a commercial artist who relished the assembly-line capitalism of post-war America and enjoyed screen-printing replicated images. It’s not a huge stretch to think he would have been tickled by NFTs.
Yet the Warhol Foundation, which manages his intellectual property, decided to sell slightly altered versions of the digital originals as original NFTs. Five of them were auctioned for about $3.4M, with the most valuable piece, a digital Campbell’s Soup Can, fetching $1.7M.
The Warhol Foundation said its approach was the best representation of the late artist’s digital works, which it had carefully preserved for posterity. That opens the door to a debate about how art isn’t static but a living thing that can change over time as perception, context, and social values also evolve. But to alter the original itself, at least in digital form, well that’s a new frontier.
“It matters not only what the artist would have thought, but also what the people running the foundation today think the artist would have thought,” Safra said. “We often go back to the artist, but actually, it’s the people running the foundation today and their interpretation of what the artist would have wanted that’s almost a better question than what the actual artist would have wanted.”
As with all things in art, there’s room for interpretation.