A piece of digital artwork by Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold for nearly $70 million last week.
Digital art backed by non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are exploding in popularity and value, and Beeple is riding the wave.
In an exclusive interview, Beeple told Insider about his unexpected fortune and the future of NFTs.
Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, has sold the most expensive work of digital art in history.
It's part of an explosion in the market for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens - digital tokens that prove ownership of things like Beeple's image that you can't even touch.
"I honestly, like, I never thought I could sell my work," Beeple said in an interview at his home in South Carolina. "Kind of late September, early October, people kept hitting me on being like, 'Oh, you got to look at this NFT thing.'"
Two months later, in December, he netted $3.5 million selling art backed by NFTs.
In March, Christie's, a 225-year-old auction house that previously only sold physical art, auctioned an entirely digital piece by Beeple. It sold for $69,346,250.
"If everybody wants it, well, then it has value," Beeple said.
The speculation in this market is so wild that when a $95,000 Banksy piece was recently burned and turned into an NFT, the NFT was sold for nearly $400,000. A cat meme recently sold for $600,000. To understand who's paying these prices, it's important to understand NFTs.
"I really look at NFTs as like a blank slate," he said. "And so it's sort of like saying, do you think a webpage is valuable? Well, I don't know. It could be, or it could be totally worthless."
NFT stands for non-fungible token, essentially a digital signature backed by blockchain technology that proves ownership of something.
Unlike Bitcoin, which are all identical by design, NFTs are unique. To some degree, what NFTs offer for sale is the idea of scarcity. It's possible to buy a token that represents art in the physical world, but NFTs also back digital assets like an image or a tweet.
"So May 1, 2007, I started doing a sketch a day, every single day, start to finish, and uploading it online," Winkelmann said. "And after a year of that, I learned a lot about drawing. Like, I got much better at drawing. I was still very, very bad, as you can see from the Christie's piece. But I learned a lot."
Beeple's popularity caught the attention of Christie's in December. They decided on a collage of his first 5,000 days of work that forms a square of 21,069 x 21,069 pixels. To help make his digital art more accessible, back in December, Beeple provided a physical product along with the NFT for his digital art. But for Christie's, being completely digital is what made Beeple's work unique - and all the more valuable.
"It's really a radical gesture to offer for sale something without any object, and we might as well lean into that," said Noah Davis, specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie's.
In the media, Beeple has been compared to artists like Banksy and Warhol, though his paid work has been as a graphic designer, with clients like Louis Vuitton, Nike and Apple.
"So I don't really like the term artist because it sounds very pretentious and douche-y," Beeple said.
"There's an interesting parallel between Mike and Andy Warhol in the way that their careers developed," Davis said. "Andy also started as an illustrator working in, basically, a gig economy."
Critics have compared him with artists like Warhol, Banksy, and the Italian artist who taped a banana to the wall of a Paris art gallery.
"I've been thinking about the banana a lot, talking a lot about the banana," Davis said. "It's the dumbest idea, and you are basically celebrating a lack of creativity, like the bare minimum of creativity, but with Mike, it's a ritual assignment of value that is celebrating 13 years of hard work of him doing this for no financial gain."
For Beeple, the pace of change has been mind blowing. Back in the olden days of 2020, Beeple's NFT-backed "Crossroads" sold for $66,666.
"At the time it was like, oh my God, I sold a piece for 66,000," Beeple said. "It was just, like, insane."
In December, he sold $3.5 million worth of art in one day. Then, on February 26, Crossroads was resold on a secondary NFT market for $6.6 million, of which Beeple got a 10% cut.
Then in March, Christie's sold the 5,000 image montage by Beeple for $69.3 million.
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