I n a digital platform called Decentraland, there’s another Sotheby’s, where the yellow digital avatar of an ape will greet you at the door. The space is a replica of Sotheby’s in London, transposed into Decentraland’s interactive metaverse, launched in early 2020, where users can create and explore virtual worlds, and curate and sell digital artwork or non-fungible tokens (NFTs) through the use of blockchain technology.
In 2021, NFTs transformed the contemporary art market seemingly overnight and Sotheby’s, through a series of sales and innovations, has been part of that wave. This autumn Sotheby’s has launched its own user-friendly, digitally-native NFT trading platform called Sotheby’s Metaverse.
The decision to invest longer term in the cryptoart space came after first partnering with marketplace platform Nifty Gateway. Max Moore, head of contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s Asia, says the first NFT sale in April, with the artist Pak, took a total of $17 million. “We recognised from that sale that there was great opportunity; a really great demand from the collector side and great artwork from the artist’s side,” he says. “We realised we could play a very important role in this burgeoning market, given our current role in the contemporary art market and the physical collectibles world, where we bridge the gap between the two worlds.”
Sotheby’s Metaverse, then, will be another mode of bridging that gap – perhaps drawing in more traditional collectors as well as crypto-enthusiasts. “Sotheby’s is a curator, and I think the way it stages pieces, the way it communicates about pieces, the way different pieces are merchandised next to each other, all of these decisions are so crucial in terms of delivering Sotheby’s stamp of approval to this market,” says Matthew Iles, co-founder and COO at Mojito, the NFT platform company that powers Sotheby’s Metaverse. Sotheby’s announced a strategic investment in Mojito as part of its recent $20 million fundraiser which also included the world’s largest talent agency, CAA.
Alongside this, Sotheby’s was the lead sponsor of an educational series with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Titled NFTs: Putting the fun in non-fungible tokens, it was a four-part virtual series, free to attend and aired on MCA Denver’s YouTube channel. It was hosted by MCA Denver director Nora Burnett Adams and Amy Whitaker, a leading blockchain researcher who is a professor in Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and included discussions with a wide range of experts, including blockchain inventors and artists.
“The Metaverse will be your one-stop-shop to really allow for a lot of different options through Sotheby’s”
“There’s a real need for education in the NFT space, and not just education in a didactic sense, but conversation and collective imagination about the NFT phenomenon, and what it means for the reimagination of power structures in the arts,” Whitaker says.
The involvement of MCA Denver in the initiative represents something of a shift, as public institutions engage more and more with NFTs. Whitaker notes that MCA Denver is unique partly because Adams has been a particular champion of innovation and new modes of supporting artists, but also that more museums were starting to become interested in the space.
Molly Nelson, assistant vice-president, Sotheby’s Advisory, says Sotheby’s wants to be part of jumpstarting conversations, not just among the collectors who were excited about NFTs off the bat. “There was an enormous response to NFTs taking off in the art world, with new audiences coming in, but of course, we also have an audience of traditional art collectors at Sotheby’s,” Nelson says. “That includes people who are skeptical, and people who are interested but don’t know how to enter this space. Our approach has been to take a step back and focus on education.”
Sotheby’s Metaverse and the educational series are evidence that Sotheby’s is thinking long-term about NFTs as a series of collectibles that will have a long lifespan rather than part of a speculative bubble. “We realised that there was a big frenzy last spring, and we wanted to understand how and where this excitement would lead, and where the market will start to be more stable,” Sotheby’s deputy director and contemporary art specialist Michael Bouhanna said. “But it’s even stronger today. Every day there are more actors in this market, trusting this market as much as in terms of innovation and art.”
It is also, Moore says, both a bold entry into a totally new world of digital art and a clear continuity with the kinds of things Sotheby’s has always done. “The same way our traditional market explores jewellery, watches, wine, furniture and design, I think we are going to start exploring not just the fine art of NFTs but also different verticals such as music, entertainment, sports. The Metaverse will be your one-stop-shop to really allow for a lot of different options through Sotheby’s.”
Cover image: An NFT titled SHIFT// by Mad Dog Jones on display during a press preview of Sotheby’s Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale, which took place 4 June 2021 in New York. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images