Digitalising Donatello: should we turn art’s masterpieces into NFTs?

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Earlier this month it was announced that a new London exhibition will be displaying works from four prestigious Italian museums. Ranging from Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch to Leonardo’s Portrait of a Musician. The show will display six universal masterworks that have never visited British soil before. The catch? None of the paintings will actually be there. Instead, they will appear as digital facsimiles, presented on tailor made screens that make them virtually indistinguishable from the originals. Unit London Galleries Eternalize the History of Art will make each piece available for purchase in editions of nine, raising funds for the preservation of the originals back in Italy. They will be sold as NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain, priced from £100,000 to £500,000. So, does this latest development in the NFT craze represent a genuine opening of the classic art market to new buyers, or a poor investment which devalues the appreciation of the physical works?

Thus far, the trade in NFTs has been dominated by electronic pieces, an entirely new market whose novelty has fuelled its explosive economic success. Generating a collective value of around £16.5bn in just a matter of years, it is unquestionable that the interest in NFTs is not really artistic, but concerns interest in the issue of ownership. If you were to buy a physical painting in a sale, having the item at your disposal confirms that it is in your possession. However, within the digital world, anyone can access someone’s work. What everyone cannot do is own them. Using a digital security system called blockchain, ‘non-fungible tokens’ have made such possession possible, providing buyers with an unbreakable digital padlock that does not guard the work itself but their exclusive ownership of it.

Threatens to make purchases more important than appreciation

This dislocation of cultural and economic worth threatens to make purchases more important than appreciation. When one considers that the average American will save just $212,500 by their retirement, the rapid materialisation of these valuations reflects a complete dislocation of popular taste and valuation. The most expensive of these sales, The First 5000 Days by Beeple, made headlines in March 2021 when it sold for a record breaking $69.4m. True, NFT’s still pale in comparison to some art sales, such as Orange, Red, Yellow by Mark Rothko, which sold for $86 million in 2012. But in the field of living artists, Beeple is already the third highest selling of all time. Producing daily collages from cheap digital assets, he optimises the ability of the digital sphere to churn out generic emotionless splurge at a horrifying rate.

Ironically NFTs actually have a major authenticity problem. Their main selling point, cryptographical security, still depends upon verifying a seller’s identity. The failure to do so has seen a marked resurgence in the production of forgeries, obliging the British Tax authorities to seize three NFTs for the first time in just the past few weeks. In this context, the alternative use for NFTs, as encoded artefacts of pre-existing physical items, becomes increasingly preferable. Whilst owners must still be verified, the fact that they retain ownership of the item upon which the NFT is based helps to clarify the basis of the exchange. In the case of the reproduction of Italian masterworks, we may see a way of using NFT’s that removes the agency of the digital technology itself. Gratifyingly, dissolving many of the problems associated with NFTs, the Unit Gallery Exhibition makes clear the direction of the replication process.

The authenticity being accessed by consumers depends more upon the legitimacy of the institution than on the artwork being replicated

Whilst blockchains are normally attractive to collectors because they mitigate the risk of copying, here, their production highlights how the digital is itself a perceptual copy. Releasing each masterwork in editions of nine and tying them to specially crafted presentation screens, each works’ totality ironically denies their exclusivity and uniqueness. Whilst these facsimiles may be able to fool plenty of gallery visitors, our engagement with art has never really been about visual perfection but our desire to authentically experience the creative process. Instead, these reproductions offer a tangible record of the process of preservation itself. As each piece is certified by their respective museum directors in return for a 50 percent share in the profits, the authenticity being accessed by consumers depends more upon the legitimacy of the institution than on the artwork being replicated.

If NFTs can be made less self-referential and used to make clearer this passage of exclusivity and patronage, then they may indeed have a positive role to play. Many companies are already recognising that NFTs are best utilised in the collection of royalties and secondary sales, and therefore seeking to dissociate blockchain technologies from the environmentally threatening cryptocurrencies upon which they are based. If we can detach NFT’s from the stranglehold of an exclusively online system, then they may become little more than just another tool of the cultural marketplace.

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