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Beeple, artist at the leading edge of a delirious digital market

Thomas URBAIN
·4-min read

Six months ago he had not sold any work -- but on Thursday one of his creations will exceed $13 million at auction. The American artist Beeple is at the vanguard of an exploding virtual market, feverishly fuelled by digital collectors.

The numbers, naturally, make him smile. Yet at 39, Beeple -- whose real name is Mike Winkelmann -- is keeping his feet on the ground, even though he admits it's all "a little head spinning."

Beeple, from Charleston, South Carolina, is the artist behind the first ever 100 percent virtual piece sold at Christie's auction house: his "Everydays: The First 5,000 Days," a collage of digital images, is expected to be sold Thursday.

By Wednesday evening the bidding had already passed $13.2 million.

At the end of February another of his works, "Crossroads," was resold for $6.6 million on the platform Nifty Gateway, which specializes in virtual works. Beeple received 10 percent.

And an animation that he himself had sold at the end of October last year for a symbolic dollar was recently acquired for $150,000.

But Beeple, with his penchant for foul language and his unpretentious glasses, is no flash in the artistic pan.

"Everydays" is based on a long-term project: beginning on May 1, 2007, when he was still a bored web designer, he sought to create a work of art each day, without interruption, in order to progress in drawing and graphic design.

Now, 5,062 consecutive days later, "Everydays" brings together in digital form his first 5,000 pieces, beginning with a simple image of his Uncle Jim and ending on a detailed graphic portrait of characters from Donald Trump to Buzz Lightyear to Michael Jackson, depicted as dystopian muses around a child drawing.

Since 2007 he has accumulated nearly two million Instagram followers and collaborated with major brands and famous musicians, attracted by his graphic universe.

But he had never sold any work under his own name. Until recently, when a new technology catapulted him in to orbit as one of the most fashionable artists in the world.

NFTs, or "non-fungible tokens," are collectible digital assets that use blockchain technology to turn virtual work into something unique, with a documented provenance that cannot be altered, guaranteeing authenticity and turning it into something ownable.

That goes for pretty much anything on the internet where, previously, content by its nature was easy to duplicate.

Recent examples include Twitter founder Jack Dorsey's first ever tweet, for which bidding has reached $2.5 million as of Wednesday; or a 10-second clip showing a spectacular sequence by basketball superstar LeBron James, which fetched $208,000 on the NBA Top Shot site late last month.

- 'Super, super good' -

"I've been creating digital art for quite a while," says Beeple -- but "this NFT stuff" is new to him. "This really feels like it just came out of nowhere."

"It's like, oh, here's the perfect way to like, sell this work that you've already made over the last decade," he marvels. "It's super, super good."

"It wasn't until he became involved with NFTs last October that he was able to enter the market and sell his art in the same manner that a painter or a sculptor might," says Christie's expert Noah Davis.

"I've been struggling for 20 years trying to convince people" that a digital file can be considered art, says Steven Sacks, owner of the New York gallery bitforms.

"We've sold plenty of work," he continues, but "to a very small community in the contemporary art world."

Now, "millions of people see this as a medium with integrity."

He respects Beeple, who, he points out, is atypical in the emerging NFT world in that he has built a body of work over more than a decade.

And yet, Sacks cannot help but see that new market as fleeting and speculative, fearing that for collectors "it's not really so much about the art as it is about the scarce item that may be popular."

Beeple himself compares it to the dot com bubble of the late 1990s -- and notes that after it burst "we didn't stop using the internet."

Come what may, he is teeming with ideas, and already plotting phyiscal exhibitions in a post-pandemic world.

As for "Everydays," the auctioneer's hammer does not mean it is over.

"I have to keep going now," he said, pointing out that "nobody's done it this long."

And yet, he adds, not everything needs to be a "masterpiece."

You have to "take the sort of pressure out of making art away," he argues -- and just have it be a "fun thing."

tu/cat/st/bgs