10 things to know about CryptoPunks, the original NFTs
For the first time, 5,184 pixels’ worth of a revolutionary NFT project will go up for auction at a traditional auction house, courtesy of the project creators and pioneers themselves
Three years ago, two software developers created a quirky art project called CryptoPunks that posed a serious and provocative question: Could a few lines of code translate to a feeling of meaningful ownership? It was a crazy idea that would require, in their words, ‘a conceptual leap.’ Three years later, that project is rightly regarded as the beginning of today’s CryptoArt movement.
Now, for the first time, a special sample of that groundbreaking work will be offered at a traditional auction house. A single lot of nine Punks, courtesy of Larva Labs — the project’s creators and pioneers — will appear in Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale on 11 May in New York.
‘The CryptoPunks are the alpha and omega of the CyptoArt movement,’ explains Noah Davis, specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s, New York. ‘This is a historic sale.’
In 2017, Matt Hall and John Watkinson, founders of New York-based software company Larva Labs, created a software program that would generate thousands of different, strange-looking characters.
At first, they thought they might have had the makings of a smartphone app or game. What they ended up with was a paradigm-altering model for the digital art market and a challenge to the concept of ‘ownership’ itself.
The CryptoPunks are a collection of 24x24, 8-bit-style pixel art images of misfits and eccentrics. There are exactly 10,000 of them, each with their own ostensible personality and unique combination of distinctive, randomly generated features.
There are 6,039 male Punks and 3,840 female Punks. A total of 696 wear hot lipstick, while 303 have muttonchops. There are 286 Punks with 3-D glasses, 128 rosy-cheeked Punks, 94 Punks with pigtails, 78 Punks with buck teeth and 44 beanie-wearing Punks.
There are also eight Punks with no distinctive features at all — sometimes referred to as Genesis Punks — and only one with seven attributes: CryptoPunk 8348 a big bearded, bucktoothed, cigarette-smoking Punk with an earring and a mole, wearing classic shades and a top hat.
To Hall and Watkinson, there was a raucous, anti-establishment spirit to the early days of the blockchain movement. It was a vibe they wanted to reflect in the look of their Punks. ‘They needed to be a collection of misfits and non-conformists,’ they explain. ‘The London punk movement of the 1970s felt like the right aesthetic.’ The dystopian grit of cyberpunk as typified by the film Blade Runner and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, was also an influence.
There’s a composite image of all 10,000 CryptoPunks on Larva Labs’ website. Anyone can save a copy of the image file to their memory stick or hard drive. Each Punk also has its own page, detailing its special features and complete transaction history.
Official ownership of each work is outlined, in code described by one fan as elegant and beautifully written, in a contract on the publicly accessible Ethereum blockchain. The record, as Larva Labs explained to Christie’s, ‘is incorruptible and promises to be extraordinarily long-lived.’ The ownership history of every artwork is tracked and documented in the blockchain, too.
The system Hall and Watkinson came up with is sometimes compared to owning a work of physical art that’s permanently on loan to a public museum. It also inspired the now widely accepted ERC-721 standard for NFTs, laying the groundwork for today’s NFT market.
As well as the human CryptoPunks, Hall and Watkinson — with a nod to popular culture archetypes — tweaked their software algorithms to generate a scarcer number of fantastical, non-human works, adding 88 green-skinned zombie Punks, 24 hirsute ape Punks and nine light-blue-skinned alien Punks to the series. Like their human counterparts, the non-human Punks have different combinations of accessories: one alien is smoking a pipe, for example, and has been dubbed the ‘wise alien’.
‘The core of the idea was that every character should be unique,’ says Larva Labs. ‘The advantage of generative art is that the process, once set in motion, can produce results that are even surprising to us. We ran the generator hundreds of times, reviewed the results, and made adjustments. Then, with little fanfare, we ran it one last time, linked it to the Ethereum smart contract that we deployed, after which the CryptoPunks were completely set in stone.’
In accordance with the nature of blockchain, once the project went live, Larva Labs couldn’t alter the existing series, even if they wanted to. ‘It’s odd to think of what might have been different if we had run the generator just one more time, or used the penultimate run’s output.’
The creators regard each work as individual pieces of generative art, while allowing that the entire project itself might be thought of as a larger conceptual piece. ‘It’s possibly the first work of art with a self-contained mechanism for recording and transacting its ownership.’
Once minted, Hall and Watkinson offered the CryptoPunks for free, not forgetting to claim 1,000 for themselves, 'just in case it becomes a thing,' as Hall put it.
At first, there was very little interest. ‘We were starting to think, ah no, this doesn’t really have it,’ Watkinson has recalled. But before too long, Punks were selling for thousands of dollars.
‘For fans of collectibles, it’s clearly a version of trading cards or something similar. However, generative art fans see it as an interesting example in that category. We like that its perception is flexible and brings together several of these worlds into a single project’
As of early April 2021, over 8,000 sales had been recorded in the previous 12 months, with an average sale price of 15.45 ether ($30,412.40). The total value of all sales is 127,360 ether ($251,620,000) — and that value grows daily.
In February, CryptoPunk 6965, a fedora-wearing ape Punk, sold for 800 ether — equivalent to $1.5 million. And on 11 March 2021, CryptoPunk 7804, the previously mentioned pipe-smoking ‘wise alien,’ was sold for the equivalent of $7.5 million — the highest amount ever paid for a Punk at the time. The record was beaten the next day.
Larva Labs’ set comprises nine CryptoPunks, all from their original collection, in a single lot that highlights the series’ best features: muttonchops, earrings, big shades, crazy hair, a hoodie, a mohawk and more.
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It consists entirely of punks with sub-1,000 series numbers, including CryptoPunk 2, a female Punk with wild hair, and an extraordinarily low edition number for a set of 10,000. Also in the batch is the bandana and shades wearing CryptoPunk 635, one of only nine aliens in all 10,000, who also happens to be the only alien with a sub-1,000 series number.
‘Taken together, the set represents both the rarest possible CryptoPunks and highlights from the variety of attributes that are the signature of the project,’ the creators explain.
As with its recent Beeple sale, Christie's will again accept payment either in USD or ether cryptocurrency.
‘With this special lot in the 21st Century Evening Sale, the advent of CryptoArt is truly, inarguably upon us,’ concludes Davis. ‘Welcome to the future.’