The more things change, the more they stay the same: A short story about art and NFTs
While browsing through the Instagram handles of galleries and museums publicising online viewing rooms and socially distanced preview evenings, Mrs Q stopped at this wordy headline: A non-fungible token by American artist Beeple sold for $69 million at Christie’s — the most expensive ever sold at an auction.
Mrs Q just got back from her first morning walk in nine months. The outdoors didn’t seem any safer to her than they were before the lockdown kicked in, but she desperately needed the morning sun and some physical exercise. Removing her two masks, she sat down in her lawn and flipped through Instagram for new art exhibitions in town.
With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, giving up the noise and clutter of south Delhi for the more tranquil family house in Panchkula seemed just the right decision for Mrs Q and her husband. But she lost him barely three months into the relocation. Despite many safety precautions and years of a strict fitness regime, her husband succumbed to the virus. His only passion, adorning the house with paintings and sculptures by Indian masters, needed to be kept alive, she told herself.
While browsing through the Instagram handles of galleries and museums publicising online viewing rooms and socially distanced preview evenings, she stopped at this wordy headline, and a cryptic blurb:
A non-fungible token by American artist Beeple sold for $69 million at Christie’s — the most expensive ever sold at an auction
It is the beginning of a new milestone in digital art. In terms of the auction prices, it puts Beeple in the league of Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
Baffled, she had her 19-year-old daughter on WhatsApp video within seconds:
“Roosh, what’s this NFT business all about? This work is just a JPEG! It doesn’t even exist in a physical form, and a collector paid a ridiculous amount for something like that?”
Accustomed to her mother’s round-the-clock queries about the art world, Roosh, currently quarantining in Colombo, gushed:
“Mom, relax! It’s the new fad but it’s huge. Supposed to be a billion-dollar market. Remember when we went to Art Basel a few years ago, a banana taped to a wall was sold for $120K. Very conceptual! It was the big thing then, and everyone said it was inspired by what Marcel Duchamp did many moons ago. He’d gotten a urinal and called it a piece of art.”
“Yes, Roosh, Duchamp and the toilet, and the banana — I get it all, but I would still not pay for such items. It’s not my scene at all. I just love my Arpitas and Meeras. But these days when I hear terms like blockchain, cryptocurrency, and non-fungible tokens in the art world, I get into a tizzy…”
Running out of patience, but visibly amused, Roosh interrupted her mother: “Haha! Even I don’t get these terms, Ma. I think blockchain is some kind of a common online ledger where these tokens are kept. They are unique, allotted to each work of digital art, and they can’t be replaced. It's like an ownership document. Maybe it’s a good thing, especially for artists, who often complain of fakes. Some have even compared it to an autographed print, except it's an online file. And I guess cryptocurrency is what you pay to get these tokens, right?”
Just when Mrs Q was beginning to get the hang of it, her phone lost the signal and the call got disconnected.
“Mrs Q, it’s so good to see you, as always. Here, let me pass you the sanitiser,” Mr M greeted one of his oldest clients at his gallery in central Delhi.
Mr M had had his gallery recently refurbished, with French windows and an open-air sculpture area that got much attention in the press and a better turnout of visitors despite the pandemic. As Mrs Q admired the revamped space, he beamed with excitement because the gallery was ready just in time for her weekend visit to Delhi.
Mrs Q settled down into the new exhibiting space, where the gallery assistants brought in two large canvases and a medium-sized drawing for a viewing that she had scheduled. She was seriously considering one big canvas for her living room, and the drawing for the study, but when her eyes fell upon a bronze sculpture that was being restored for a new exhibition, she told the gallerist to pack “that small one”.
“And I need a nice acrylic casing for the sculpture. You know Delhi pollution is getting to Panchkula as well,” Mrs Q said as she sat down to have her favourite Chamomile tea and butter croissants in the garden.
“Certainly, ma’am,” Mr M responded quickly, though somewhat disappointed.
“Investing in NFTs? I believe there is a lot of money to be made in them. A tweet was recently sold for nearly 3 million dollars. It has caused a stir among artists in India too,” she said, while still thinking of her conversation with Roosh from two days ago.
“Not so rich and not so brave, Mrs Q! Besides, I am still struggling with this new digital craze: online viewing rooms, Insta lives, and Zoom talks. My staff helps me out with these, but I think it is still tedious for all of us, and I don’t know if people are really bothered beyond a point. And on top of it, understanding NFTs sounds like applying for a PhD!”
“I agree, and it may not be half as much fun as setting up a physical show. Imagine, the thrill of seeing collectors walk into your booth at a fair, and the quick sales…that’s when I first met you,” Mrs Q said.
“That’s absolutely correct. 2008. What a year it was! The global financial crisis and the bubble that burst!”
Mrs Q looked at her watch. It was 7 pm. She wanted to be back at her south Delhi home before the night curfew began. She walked towards her car, and as the driver opened the door for her, she gave one last look at Mr M’s shining two-storied gallery. With a sigh, she said:
“You know, M, these days everything seems like a pack of falling cards. Humans. Businesses. Jobs. Everything. It’s all very fragile, and I feel one has to move with the times. Do new things, make new money, otherwise we’ll be history soon.”
For the first time during their meeting that day, the characteristically straightjacketed Mr M gave out a big laugh, mildly starting his client. “Well, it took me half a lifetime to build this brick-and-mortar business. It is my bread and butter. It’s got its pains and gains, but I know many people who genuinely believe in investing their time and money in the so-called old-fashioned painting. I very much doubt those people and their chosen art will go out of fashion. As for life, it has always been unpredictable, and will always be.”
“You are charming and convincing as always, Mr M. I guess such adventure is the stuff of geeky millennials, not for old-timers like you and I,” she chuckled as she got into the car.
Her driver turned on the car’s ignition as soon as she settled in, and gently reminded his boss: “Mummyji, Sunday ko aapka vaccine hai. Bhulna mat (Sunday is your vaccine day, don’t forget).”
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