Modern tastemakers love splurging on Christie’s NFTs and twerking frogs alike
Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile is moving places. It is not that he does not like his current Miami house. It is more that he needs a place where he can best enjoy his art collection. “The new home is going to have 15 or 16 screens all around, and projectors,” Rodriguez-Fraile, a 33-year-old Spaniard with a background in finance, says. That is because his collection consists not of sculptures, paintings or etchings, but of non-fungible tokens – or NFTs – unique cryptographic files that collectors regard as proofs of ownership of digital art pieces like videos, gifs, or computer-designed images.
Everyone can right-click and download the artwork an NFT is associated with; but the people who, like Rodriguez-Fraile, buy the tokens in online auctions for swingeing cryptocurrency sums, say they feel like the only real owners. Which is why Rodriguez-Fraile is looking forward to spending his days surrounded by screens constantly flaunting his purchases.
Rodriguez-Fraile’s work as a patron of the crypto arts, however, extends beyond his living room: he is currently working to open several digital art exhibition rooms around the world (the first, he says, will launch in Miami in the second half of 2021). And his efforts even transcend the physical realm, as he is one of the founders of the MOCA (Museum of Crypto Art), an NFT-backed art gallery hosted on a VR platform. “The best thing with these digital artworks is that we can travel with them, we can take them wherever we want, we can showcase them to people around the globe,” he says. “If you own a very nice masterpiece by Picasso, everybody knows you own it, but very few people will get to see it.”
The NFT art scene got white-hot incredibly fast: an NFT linked to a collage by American digital artist Beeple sold for $69,346,250 in cryptocurrency in a Christie’s auction in March 2021. Rodriguez-Fraile says he has twice spent $1 million on an NFT – on works by visual artists Pak and WhIsBe – and in March he made headlines after re-selling one of his pieces, a 38-second Beeple video, for over $6 million. To many, this is just the usual boom-and-bust cycle all cryptocurrency-adjacent fads go through – pointing out that nearly all collectors are wealthy cryptocurrency entrepreneurs, and that as of June 2021 NFT sales had crashed to less eye-catching levels. Others think that, whatever the fluctuations in price and buzz, NFT art is here to stay. Vincent Harrison, a Los Angeles-based art gallerist who has been working with NFT artists and platforms, says that collectors of digital art are no different from those who splurge on Tintorettos and Jeff Koons.
“It’s the same collector mentality. The beauty of it with digital art is that people don’t have to stop collecting because they never run out of space,” he says “This almost creates digital hoarders – which is fine, because I know plenty of collectors that have art they can’t put on the wall: they have it in storage. But they still collect just because they love art.”
Rodriguez-Fraile, indeed, styles himself as a collector through and through: he carefully chooses his pieces guided by his aesthetic sense and the artist’s brand, and he cultivates friendly relationships with the creators whose work he enjoys. “This is never, never a monetary thought,” he says. He even says that, while he could hardly call himself an art collector before his journey through the NFT space – he was familiar with cryptocurrency, on the other hand – the experience has increased his love of “traditional art”: in May, he bought a David Bowie portrait by Elizabeth Peyton from Sotheby’s for $2 million. For others in this space, NFT-collecting is either a nuanced enterprise suffused with revolutionary undertones, or a pointless financial rat-race.Most Popular
Anand Venkateswaran – aka Twobadour – is one of the pseudonymous avatar-donning halves of the Metapurse duo who bought Beeple’s $69 million piece at Christie’s. In a blogpost published shortly after the auction, Twobadour and his colleague Metakovan argued that through the purchase they had wanted to challenge the overwhelming whiteness of the art scene. (Both Twobadour and Metakovan are Indian Tamils). Twobadour says he enjoys the open, democratising nature of the NFT art space, contrasting it to the traditional art scene. “Here, there are no gatekeepers,” he says. “The accessibility that you have to these [NFT] platforms for the artists themselves, I think, is revolutionary.”
In contrast, UK-based venture capitalist Jamie Burke started dabbling in NFT art simply because he smelled a “financial opportunity.” His initial purchases were pieces he found visually striking. “A lot of people would buy low-aesthetic, self-referential stuff,” Burke says: NFTs linked to memes, cryptocurrency cartoons, or badly-drawn characters. “That didn’t appeal to me – I went for aesthetically pleasant stuff. That was a mistake.”
The longer Burke spent collecting NFTs – he even launched a virtual art gallery – the more he realised that in this sphere, aesthetics count for nothing. The zanier and uglier an NFT, the better. Now, Burke is the proud owner of a Twerky Pepe – the image of a sashaying cartoon-frog. “I moved from aesthetics to memetics,” he says. In the crypto-art scene, he thinks, connoisseurs and hipsters are bound to lose their shirts: the big bucks are all on the side of people who follow the online crowd and buy popular, funny images. “NFTs are a form of social media: it’s not just something to put on a wall,” he says. “It’s more like a membership of a club or cult.”