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Christie’s Hosts Its Very-First Auction of Digital Art

By Stacey LastoeFeb 25 2021
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The images are at once familiar and completely warped. Strange, yet studious. Today, 13 and a half years’ worth of Mike Winkelmann’s images go on sale at Christie’s. The artist, who goes by Beeple, breaks ground at Christie’s with the full debut of his opus: “Everydays: The First 5000 Days.

The auction is historic for a couple of reasons: For starters, Winkelmann’s work is the first time Christie’s, the historic auction house dating back to 1766, is featuring a piece of digital art, or crypto art—the first major auction house to do so. Also of note are the accepted payment options for “Everydays.” The option to purchase Beeple’s piece using cryptocurrency is another first for Christie’s, located in New York at 20 Rockefeller Plaza.

“We’re at this precipice where crypto is going to be such a more established and mainstream mode of conducting business,” Noah Davis, specialist, post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, told Bloomberg. “With this [sale], I think it’s the perfect way to dip our toes in and give this a shot.”

Meghan Doyle, cataloguer, post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, says that the timing couldn’t be more perfect. “We are coming off a year that rendered it absolutely vital for Christie’s, and every art business and institution, to prioritize building and further developing their digital tools in order to optimize the at-home art viewing experience.”

This monumental occasion is not lost on Winkelmann. In an Instagram post announcing the event to his followers, Winkelmann writes: “I could not be more honored and humbled to be representing the digital art community for this historic sale!!! <3”

What began as a creative outlet for a father of two living in a Charleston, South Carolina, suburb with his schoolteacher wife has catapulted Winkelmann to fame most artists can only dream of. Winkelmann, who was born in Wisconsin, is arguably as much an influencer as he is an artist. After a brief career stint designing corporate websites, in May 2007 he began creating a funky new sketch every single day. Since that day nearly 14 years ago, Winkelmann has posted a new digital work of art online every day through January 7, 2021. Beeple_crap, Winkelmann’s Instagram account showcasing the “Everydays” work, has 1.8 million followers, and each post typically garners upwards of 300 comments. But Winkelmann doesn’t just count followers among his riches: At the end of 2020, he grossed $3.5 million for the first extensive auction of his art.

Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021
Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021

Very often, Winkelmann uses pop culture as inspiration. Recent single-piece titles include “Release the Bezos” in recognition of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ announcement that he was stepping down as CEO, and “The Reign of Jobi” on January 20, a nod to President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Designer and filmmaker Craig Waxman heard Winkelmann speak—and watched him spontaneously create something—at a SIGGRAPH conference in 2017. Waxman has been following Beeple’s creation and rise to success ever since and describes Winkelmann as a “goofy guy who makes stuff ... only he happens to be a genius.” Waxman, who himself has spent some time during the Covid-19 pandemic creating digital art, is somewhat fascinated by the Christie’s auction, calling it a “response to the influencer era,” of which Beeple is now a part.

Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021
Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021

Wondering at the authenticity of a digital work of art such as this? The purchase will come with a unique non-fungible token (NFT), certifying its legitimacy. “While this is the first purely digital artwork that Christie’s has ever offered at auction, this is not our first experience with non-fungible tokens,” Doyle says. As recently as October of last year, Robert Alice’s Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) (from “Portraits of a Mind”) was sold by Christie’s with an NFT. “Block 21 cannot be considered a purely digital work given that the work included a physical canvas,” Doyle explains, “whereas Beeple’s ‘Everydays’ exists solely in the digital art world.

Christie’s is looking forward to seeing how the market reacts to the Beeple auction. Doyle says it’s a promising position for Christie’s—“to start to bridge the gap between crypto-collectors and our traditional collecting base” and in turn “elevate gifted creators, essentially expanding the boundaries of what can be possible for ‘art’ and artists in the future."

Given his fan base and a younger, tech-savvy generation’s open-mindedness toward Bitcoin, Ether, and other cryptocurrencies, Beeple’s Christie’s show is likely to draw huge crowds, albeit virtual, of course, owing to restrictions around Covid-19. Still, although the opening bid starts at $100, if the December sale is any indication of the value of Beeple’s work, it’s unlikely to stay low for long. The estimate on the work is listed as “unknown” to underscore the unprecedented nature of the sale, Doyle explains.

Never before has the auction house shown a vested interest in digital art, but Beeple—the personality, the brand, the artist—is a promising story. Perhaps it’s one New York City, long a haven for artists of all mediums, is perfectly primed for. On March 11, when the auction ends, just one individual will be one piece of crypto art richer; fortunately, for the rest of us, there’s Instagram.”

  • Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021
  • Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021
  • Photo Provided By Christie’s Images LTD. 2021
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