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A month-old digital artwork just sold for $69 million

March 11, 2021, 5:51 PM UTC

On Thursday, a digital artwork less than a month old hammered for $60 million at Christie’s in New York, shattering every previous record set for the medium and pushing the NFT market into the price range of blue-chip masterworks. With buyer’s premium the total comes to $69 million.

Justin Sun, founder of cryptocurrency platform Tron is the buyer. A representative for Tron confirmed Sun’s bid at $60.25 million, which is the hammer price.  

Christie’s declined to confirm the buyer, but prior to the sale, Davis said that “there have been a handful of really dogged, really serious clients pursuing it, and they are mostly people who are very steeped in crypto.

“Whether that means they’re early investors in crypto, or they run and operate businesses that have significant investment in crypto technology,” he continued, “they’re all very savvy, ‘#online’ people.” 

Sun is known as a marketer who has made splashes by spending large sums of money before. In 2019, he submitted the $4.57 million winning bid to have lunch with Warren Buffett. He’s also had celebrities like Kobe Bryant at his company events. Most recently, the 30-year-old invested $10 million in GameStop. near the peak of the Reddit-fueled rally.

The artwork

Everydays: the First 5,000 Days is a mosaic of every image that artist Mike Winkelmann, who goes by the name Beeple, has made since 2013. The artwork is attached to a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital certificate of authenticity that runs on blockchain technology. Unlike some of his other artworks, Everydays doesn’t come with anything physical (a box, a plaque) attached. Bidding opened at $100 on Feb. 25.

“The first day of bidding was one of the most magical events in my auction career,” says Noah Davis, a specialist at Christie’s who organized the sale. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the first eight minutes of bidding, Davis says, about 20 bidders pushed the work to $1 million. “Only three [of the bidders] were known to us previously.”

The sale’s final minutes were even wilder, with bidding and drama that unprecedented in modern auction history. The closest analog would be the extended bidding that pushed the price of a work by Leonardo Da Vinci to $450 million at Christie’s in 2017.

But that was in an auction room, with an auctioneer, and live bidders. The fight for Everydays, in contrast, existed exclusively online, and percentage wise at least, had last-minute leaps familiar to anyone watching a hotly contested eBay lot. 

An hour before the sale closed, bids were floating at about $14 million; in the last 10 minutes the price jumped to $22 million, then $27 million, then to $35 million, and then, when there were just second left on the clock, to $50 million, and then a staggering $60 million. The official hammer was $60.25 million, plus an extra $9 million for Christie’s.

Paying with cryptocurrency 

When Christie’s announced the sale last month, it made waves when it revealed that it would accept cryptocurrency as payment; the caveat was that the buyer’s premium had to be in a traditional currency. 

But as the days went on and people continued to push the price even higher, that policy changed.

“We are accepting [a buyer’s premium of] Ethereum for this purchase,” Davis says. “I feel like that’s actually the biggest deal of this whole thing, secretly.”

Speaking a day before the sale closed, Davis said he was “90% sure” that the final buyer would be paying in cryptocurrency. Christie’s didn’t immediately confirm if that was the case once the sale concluded.

Given the wild volatility of cryptocurrencies, Christie’s may be taking a risk accepting its premium in Ethereum. The second-biggest digital coin lost 50% of its value on Feb. 22, sinking as low as $700. As of 10:11 a.m. EST on Mar. 11, Ether was trading at $1,815 to the dollar, a roughly 160% growth over the prior week.

This sale is the latest in a whirlwind boom in the market for NFTs. Beeple’s previous record was set in late February, when a work that someone had purchased just months earlier in October for $66,000 sold for $6.6 million—a 9,900% growth. Before that, his record stood at $777,777.777, which was set in January. A year before that, he hadn’t sold a single artwork.

The $69 million price tag isn’t just an unprecedented price for an NFT, it’s an unprecedented price for a new artist. For contrast, major works by giants of art history such as Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso saw sales of “only” $16 million and  $15.6 million recently.

Everydays is now the third most expensive artwork by a living artist to sell at auction—ever. Only a sculpture by Jeff Koons and a painting by David Hockney are in front of it on the list. The difference, though, is that those two artworks were sold by collectors, meaning that Hockney and Koons didn’t get a cent. Everydays, in contrast, was consigned by Beeple himself, meaning he will receive all of the $60 million hammer price. A NSFW reaction tweet by Beeple amply sums it up.

Davis says this is just the beginning. “It’s a huge shot in the arm for the business generally, when you have a sale result like that,” he says. “I think we will have really compelling and exciting NFT-based art opportunities at Christie’s in the near future.”