The New Digital Ownership of Art

Artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, reacts to the amount his art sold for at auction in this screenshot from Christie’s YouTube channel.



Something important has happened in the art world: the possibility of exclusive ownership of digital art, by blockchain technology. As with Bitcoin, a digital “certificate of authenticity” can be embedded in digital art, making it unique and therefore more collectible. The application of the existing technology to artwork has suddenly caught on, with the venerable Christie’s selling its first digital-only art on Thursday, a composite work of 5,000 individual pieces by the artist known as Beeple, for $69.3 million.

Reproduction and authenticity have always been an issue in art. Artists in the guild system used apprentices to copy their sculptures, for example, a kind of mass production, or even to help them create their originals, raising issues of what it meant for art to be “made” by the artist.

Painters have often made multiple versions of paintings, striving for perfection, leaving collectors to decide which one is definitive, and the hierarchy of value for all others.

Forgeries have muddied authenticity since, well, forever.

When technology became advanced enough to allow for prints, whether woodcut or photographic, the questions were also about reproduction: which print run was a work from? Did the artist supervise the copies? What if the artist supervised or “authorized” thousands of copies?

As the technology used to reproduce artwork took it farther from its origins, value often diminished. There is often little physical difference between an artist’s print, an artist’s proof, and prints run immediately afterward, but prices can vary wildly by the perception of artist involvement. There is an even bigger difference between those prints and “art prints,” most commonly photographs or digital scans of original artwork, including oil paintings, printed by silkscreen or inkjet printers. On the high end of these are giclée prints, which use pigmented inks; on the cheaper end are posters printed with four-color process, which still can be printed on materials other than paper, such as canvas, complicating how much consumers will pay for them (though usually not the works’ value, which is close to worthless).

Even if I do not collect as an investment, and enjoy having posters of works I like on my wall, it is undeniable that going to a museum or gallery reveals another dimension, literally—the 3D surface of a painting, eg, where the paint rises in waves. One’s imagination can connect to a physical original, once manipulated by the artist herself, in ways that a poster never allows.

But even in the museum, one encounters Warhol screens, video projections of a “happening,” or conceptual art that museum-goers could reproduce easily on their own.

Original digital artwork has created the next-level problem. A photograph from a file on a digital SLR is, in theory, the same from printing to printing, if the same printer and paper is used each time. If a painter uses online tools to create a digital-only “painting,” displayed on a monitor, then any digital copies will not be facsimiles but exact clones. Nothing is different about them, unless some glitch occurs in the file, and there is no way to prove any one file is the “original.” (Time stamps can be manipulated.) And how do you price something that can be replicated exactly, endlessly? What makes anything about them unique enough to justify selling one or a few at higher prices that reflect the quality of the artwork itself and the artist’s reputation?

The art market is a construct, of course. Art sells for what people agree to pay for it. Perceived value drives up the prices—a sort of mass delusion—since art is not a commodity like corn or other food necessary to life. Buyers often want things because other people want to buy them.

And so, technology has solved a problem that technology has been building toward for thousands of years. Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, allows artists to designate an encrypted “original,” even if copies are identical. Prices can go up because of scarcity of product, and buyers can invest as well as collect, because that originality can be preserved and traded on the market.

I spoke to an art dealer friend about all this. He likes to invest in a variety of things, and the new application of blockchain has excited him, not the least because the field is new and wide-open.

He began to wonder if the near future for his business might be in making digital copies of the art he trades in, or individual frames from films, or trading cards, then destroying the originals. He would be selling the now-digital “originals” with blockchained COAs (certificates of authenticity), which would require no physical packaging or shipping. They would be easier to manage and transfer, since all it takes for “ownership” is a password, and they could not be damaged in the same way as fragile physical art. There would be no real need for brick-and-mortar galleries anymore, either, which are costly to maintain and staff.

As he warmed to the idea, he said you could do it with other things, too. Books could be done now, he said, by scanning them and destroying all printed copies, so instead of multiple signed firsts, there would be one first—and he would own it.

Eventually, he foretold, technology would extend this practice. He tried to imagine who would be the billionaires in this area in 10 years. 3D scans could be made of sculptures and decorative-art objects, which would be smashed afterward. He could scan a historic ship and burn the original to the waterline.

It would be like Fahrenheit 451, he said, in which firemen do the opposite thing from what you would expect them to do. As a lover of beautiful things, he would ensure an artwork’s eternal perfection by making a digital copy, then destroying the perishable, fungible original. Collectors, conservationists, archivists, preservationists—all would become destroyers of worlds.

As a pointed joke I said the next thing he would want to scan and blockchain would be my brain. He said it was an excellent idea and that I could lease the working scan from him for the duration, but when I was done he would be looking to see what he could get for it on the open market.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.