In 2017, Larva Labs created CryptoPunks — 10,000 pixelated portraits of people, aliens, apes and zombies minted as NFTs. At the launch, they gave 9,000 away for free, while the business retained 1,000. It was one of the internet’s first ever NFT projects and set CryptoPunks on the road to becoming at one point the most successful crypto-art project ever made.
Larva Labs was created in New York by Matt Hall and John Watkinson. Together, they coded a piece of software that would randomly generate 10,000 portraits from a predetermined set of assets. By design, some assets would appear less frequently than others, making certain CryptoPunks rarer. For example, 317 CryptoPunks smoke a pipe, 286 wear 3-D glasses and 128 have rosy cheeks.
‘The core of the idea was that every character should be unique,’ Larva Labs have said. ‘The advantage of generative art is that the process, once set in motion, can produce results that are even surprising to us.’
The punk design of the portraits was intended to reflect the anti-establishment spirit of the crypto movement. Their initial launch was an experiment to see how the public would react to the idea of collecting digital art.
Four years later, in February 2021, CryptoPunk 6965, which depicts an ape in a fedora, sold for the equivalent price of $1.5 million. The following month, CryptoPunk 7804, an alien smoking a pipe, sold for the equivalent price of $7.5 million. Afterwards, the work’s new owner declared it was the ‘digital Mona Lisa.’
A number of celebrities also own CryptoPunks, including rappers Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg and tennis legend Serena Williams.
In May 2021, Hall and Watkinson consigned a set of nine rare CryptoPunks to Christie’s. Offered as a single lot in an evening sale of 21st century art, they sold for $16.9 million, more than double their low estimate.
At the time, that was the second most expensive NFT purchase after the record-breaking $69 million sale of a set of Beeple NFTs at Christie’s two months earlier.
The following February, the record price for a CryptoPunk was smashed when CryptoPunk 5822, one of just nine blue aliens, sold for $23.9 million.