The world’s first coins were nothing like the small, flat metal discs of standardized shape and weight you are right now visualizing in your mind’s eye. Rather, they were cast in bronze to resemble cowry shells, miniature tokenized abstractions of sea snails, which had previously been used as currency in prehistoric China. Tong Bei—literally translated as “bronze cowry” or “bronze shell”—is perhaps the earliest known minted currency, dating back to the Late Chinese Bronze Age. Other examples of early minted currency originated in Greece, including the famous Lydian coin, struck from an alluvial alloy of gold and silver, and the Croeseid, the world’s first pure gold coin. Since its inception, money has been used to symbolize something it definitely is not. This is most obviously exemplified by the Tong Bei, which were cast to physically replace the fragile cowry shells which the Chinese previously used as currency. But even today, the US Dollar is a kind of subtle abstraction. According to the contemporary philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, “money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). This “system of mutual trust” is based on a uniquely human shared belief that money, in whatever form it takes, is not only a symbol of value, but becomes valuable in and of itself.
Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
In 2008, the pseudonymous person (or persons) Satoshi Nakamoto created the world’s first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. This purely digital tender survives without the authority of a central bank or lone administrator because its every transaction is verified via a publicly distributed ledger called a blockchain. In the ensuing decade, Bitcoin’s value has skyrocketed from practically nothing to tens of thousands of dollars for a single coin. Its cultural cache has experienced a similar explosion. Bitcoin’s astounding ascent—however volatile—is emblematic of a still-shifting paradigm, one in which the virtual experience is rapidly gaining emotional and psychological purchase on the lived experience.
Over the course of the last year, during a pandemic in which daily life was completely and violently upended, we reached a curious tipping point. In the early months of global lockdown restrictions, people—children and adults from around the world—flocked to the viral videogame sensation Animal Crossing, where they spent hours (daily) meticulously curating their own islands, virtually visiting their friends, or playing cute but frivolous minigames like hunting for bugs, singing karaoke or growing a flower garden. Another sign of the fuzzy membrane between the real and the virtual becoming ever fuzzier.
Towards the end of 2020, people started bidding aggressively to own things that don’t physically exist. Enter the NFT: non-fungible tokens are digital assets which are inscribed indelibly on a blockchain, meaning they cannot be altered, duplicated, forged, destroyed or even successfully squirreled away. The applications for NFT and blockchain technology are mindbogglingly vast and have only just begun being integrated in various industries, but as regards the world of fine art, it’s clear that NFTs have quickly become a collecting category in and of themselves. To own NFT-based art is to own the beating heart and intangible soul of an artwork, with an indestructible Certificate of Authenticity included. While to the general public, it seemed suddenly insane—spending millions to own what was wrongly understood to be just a JPEG or GIF—the advent of CryptoArt, like cryptocurrency, was years in the making.
In 2017, technologists Matt Hall and John Watkinson (also the esteemed consignors of the present lot) embarked on an art project under the moniker Larva Labs. Using the conceptual framework of cryptocurrency, with its radical decentralization and distributed ledger, Larva Labs wrote an algorithm to create 10,000 completely unique 24 by 24 pixel icons of funky cartoon heads in profile. The CryptoPunks—so named for their diverse affinities with the aesthetics of British punk rock culture of the 70s and 80s—were unleashed onto the Ethereum blockchain, where they could be freely claimed by anyone with an ETH wallet. As each and every Punk was quickly whisked away by their new owners, their movements were automatically written into the blockchain.
A fascinating aspect of the CryptoPunks website is the breadth of information recorded therein. Not only can you assess exactly which attributes make each of the Punks unique from one another, you can browse by various criteria such as attributes, owners’ accounts, rejected, pending and accepted offers, discerning a clear hierarchy of collectability amongst the myriad Punks and, if you’re looking closely, identifying any nascent market trends in media res. Imagine if there existed a similar website for works by Pablo Picasso, where every authentic artwork’s market history, including both “private” and “public” sales (a non-sequitur of a distinction in the age of the blockchain) was automatically recorded and readily available to any curious inquirer. How drastically different would those marketplaces be if all that information was simply… out there? One fact is inarguable: in this hypothetical scenario, the art collector has never been more empowered.
Amongst the Punks, there are sprinkled in three non-human types. In reverse order of rarity, they are the Zombie (there are 88), the Ape (there are 24) and the Alien (only 9 exist). The present lot contains a particularly stylish example of the latter. Drawing from the imagined worlds of Sci-Fi and Horror movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Night of the Living Dead and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Hall and Watkinson endowed their creations with the kind of otherworldly playfulness that is often erased by the passing of youth, whence it is replaced with a dully aching nostalgia for innocent fantasy. The rare non-human types have a similar kind of collectible aura as, say, a first edition holographic Pokémon card, or a clean pair of Nike SB NYC Pigeons. This is not so different than the hallowed patina of the Art Historical canon, whereby Warhol’s soup cans on canvas from the 60’s command prices with drastically many more zeroes than his later editioned soup cans.
To own NFT-based art is to own the beating heart and intangible soul of an artwork, with an indestructible Certificate of Authenticity included.”
The Punks are non-fungible in the sense that no two are exactly alike, and this standard applies to the non-human types, too. The US Dollar is fungible in the sense that we all agree one 20 dollar bill is worth just as much as any other. But no single Alien is necessarily more or less valuable than another, and this is visibly demonstrated in their assigned accessories. The Alien in the present grouping, CryptoPunk 635, is accessorized with a “Bandana” (481 Punks have this) and “Regular Shades” (527 Punks have this). As of writing, the top two prices paid for any Punks were achieved by Aliens, CryptoPunk 3310 sporting “Headband” (406 punks have this) and CryptoPunk 7804, sporting “Cap Forward” (254 Punks have this), “Pipe” (317 Punks have this) and “Small Shades” (378 Punks have this). On March 11, 2021, user 0x7b8961 successfully purchased CryptoPunk 3310 from user 0x6611fe for 4.2K ETH, or (at the time) $7.58M. In addition to the Alien, the present grouping of nine CryptoPunks, assembled by and consigned directly from Larva Labs, is comprised of eight highly desirable, diverse, low-mint-number human punks—including CryptoPunk 2, only the third Punk ever minted (naturally, there is a Punk 0).
There is a very famous Andy Warhol quote that goes like this: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” With the Punks, LarvaLabs have taken this pithy maxim and flipped it and reversed it. In making the CryptoPunks, they made art that is money. More than a century ago, during the winter of 1919, Marcel Duchamp did much the same. He paid for some dental work performed by Dr. Daniel Tzanck—also an art collector and patron of the avant-garde—with a masterfully forged pen-and-ink check to the tune of $115. The check was drawn from an imagined account at “The Teeth’s Loan & Trust Company, Consolidated in New York.” Interestingly, years later, Duchamp purchased the forged check from his dentist for a far greater sum than it was purported to represent. Further proof that money is the greatest system of mutual trust? Perhaps it was art all along.
-Noah Davis, Associate Vice President, Head of Digital Sales, Post-War and Contemporary Art
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).