NFTs AT AUCTION: SO WHO'S ACTUALLY BUYING THIS STUFF?
It’s been almost a year since the sale of the first NFT at auction (Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days sold for a staggering $69 million at Christie’s in March 2021) and Bonhams hasn’t been late to the party. By June of 2021 they had partnered with SuperRare to host their first NFT auction and, almost a year later, have announced their “first-ever sale of a link physical artwork and NFT”. I was surprised to receive my invitation to their After Hours discussion panel about the upcoming auction, Bonhams X Philip Colbert, having been incredibly rude about the auction house in an article I wrote for The Critic in January - but I was nevertheless intrigued. Not by the subject itself (once you’ve been to one NFT discussion panel you’ve been to them all) but by the bizarrely eclectic host panel: the phrase “held by British Rapper Tinie Tempah, Former GQ Editor Dylan Jones, Artist Philip Colbert and Bonhams Head of Digital Nima Sagharchi'' is one that simply would never be found outside of the weird world of NFT culture. Colbert makes sense as it's his Lobster (Genesis) and its accompanying NFT that's being auctioned, but something about the other names in the list grabbed me by the throat. So, under the guise of free food and drink, I went along to see just who is interested in spending the big bucks on these little things.
The audience is remarkably yet predictably youthful. The last Bonhams auction I attended placed me firmly as the youngest by at least 40 years. This event has a much tighter energy: bright pink neon signs, sultry remixes of Solange, cleverly named cocktails, with a crowd that is either under 30 or very fashionable (I spot Victoria Grant and her posse of eccentrically dressed dilettantes). There is an electric chatter running through the air but it’s quickly obvious that this is not from potential buyers. I overhear several conversations within the first ten minutes that essentially boiled down to one aspiring entrepreneur shilling their new app or cryptocurrency to another. Nobody actually wants to buy an NFT - everybody makes them, or has friends that make them, or has hired this amazing guy, oh you wouldn’t know him, he worked on the graphic design team for the vanity card for Ozark to make them. But nobody so far is looking to purchase. I am offered several business cards (often unprompted) dotted with titles like digital nomad or vibe curator, but when I ask my new benefactors if they are planning on bidding on Colberts’ work, they drift off into monologues about the interaction of art and technology. When I finally wrestle some of them into telling me how much they think the piece will go for, the answers vary from a hundred grand to “millions, I’m sure,” as one attendee tells me with toothy confidence. The Bonhams website estimates its value between £20,000 and £30,000, so it’s fair to say most people have no idea what they’re talking about.
These interactions aren’t the only signs of the well-intentioned, opportunistic yet ultimately uninformed sort of people NFTs at auction are attracting. As I mentioned, the choice of Tinie Tempah (real name Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu) and Dylan Jones seemed like a particularly bizarre one. It was however very apt - not because either are uniquely knowledgeable or insightful when it comes to art (or even NFTs) but because they are macrocosmic representations of the type of people Bonhams are trying to engage with. Like their audience, the pair are a part of the male 25 - 35 year old W.I.E.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) demographic that seem more excited by the prospect of making money than art. Tempah hasn’t had a hit since 2009, and I don’t think anybody would have been able to name Jones as editor of GQ until his retirement in 2021, but Pass Out was the nevertheless soundtrack of the early 2010s and the intrinsic coolness of GQ just about rubs off on Jones. The result of this cool-but-not-quite honey trap is interesting: while the upstairs portion of the event is relatively diverse, the audience for the actual panel is comprised mostly of white, millennial males. These are not the glamorous dilettantes floating around in the main gallery; these are the guys with a basement dedicated to bitcoin mining servers and polygynal Twitter profile pictures. These are the people ready to actually spend money on buying the stuff that everyone else is making.
Tinie Tempah misuses a few technical key terms when discussing NFTs, making it clear that he has never actually created, minted or uploaded an artwork himself. It's unlikely that the men gathered around him have either, and it's obvious that everybody here is more interested in making money than art. Tempah speaks enthusiastically about the “childhood wonderment” that he associates with collecting NFTs and the cartoons and video games that inspire (and saturate) the market today - a sentiment which prompts a murmur of agreement amongst the waning crowd. Looking around at the sea of sweaty millennial men that have stuck around until this part of the talk (most of the women have sensibly retreated to the air conditioned bar area at the back of the room) one can’t help but wonder how deep the role of the male millennial psyche goes when it comes to NFTs. Looking at Colberts’ shiny neon 3D models or indeed any one of the thousands of Lazy Lion or Bored Ape rip-offs, it’s clear that there’s a market for brightly-colored cartoons - one possibly set up over 20 years ago with the advent of collectibles like Pokemon and, more recently, things like FunkoPops. The collectible avatar experience of NFTs seems one particularly suited to the sensibilities of the Western male. A brief scroll through OpenSea reveals an ocean of artwork that really could only appeal to the 18-35 mans’ discerning eye: 80s video game-inspired pixel art, gaudy cartoon creatures smoking weed, trading cards of top basketball and baseball athletes, and a delightful portrait of Natalie Portman as Star Wars’ Queen Amidala with a pair of very generously proportioned breasts on full display.
Bonham’s choice of speakers is clearly an attempt at dressing this infantile market up in its’ big boy suit. There is, of course, no real ‘discussion’ about NFTs at all - as Brad Troemel put it, most of these talks are essentially like “having a panel hosted by Raytheon CEOs and oil tycoons called ‘Should America invade more places in the Middle East?’”. Of course nobody addresses the immense amount of energy generated to host NFTs, or the multi-level-marketing scheme structure that keeps the whole thing running (and that will inevitably collapse - watch Troemel’s insightful report on the post-internet scam here). Jones and Tempah pat themselves on the back only a little bit less than Bonhams’ head of digital affairs Nima Sagharch for their involvement in this ‘new and exciting era of art’, but the artistic womb fantasy is most present in Colbert and his work. Lobstar (Genesis) and its accompanying NFT is not as aesthetically egregious as some of its contemporaries but the 7,777 lobster portrait NFTs launching alongside it are a symbol of a deeply immature creator, audience and market. When asked how the quality of NFTs will survive the quantity, Colbert, who went to St Andrews, has the audacity to sneer “well, these days, anybody can become an artist”, made especially ironic by the fact that he is sat in front of a kaleidoscope of computer-generated lobsters wearing little hats and arranged like the character selection screen of a Mario game. "Technology is giving us everything we want," he continues proudly - a bold statement, considering the likely minimal number of people who truly desired 8,000 variations of Blender-rendered crustaceans. A brief look at his website shows that the works themselves are divided up in a hierarchy eerily (yet unsurprisingly) similar to loot boxes in video games, ranging from ‘Everyday’ avatars to ‘Legendary’ ones, presumably so that his fans can show off exactly how much money they were willing to drop.
Bonhams and Colbert are capitalising on a very specific, mostly millennial desire to ‘be a part of’ something larger, the hope of joining a community while still being able to signal status within it - one I suspect has been planted in the collective subconscious of the 25-35 year old male through the collectible avatar experience of commercially cultural staples like Pokemon, video games and micro transactions. The art world layperson is certainly more reticent to actually purchase NFTs in an auction setting, but that doesn't mean they aren't ready to make room for the young men chasing the childhood joy of trading cards and Digimon. As with any art at auction, the real money is being quietly laundered and the people purchasing the genuinely expensive stuff are keeping quiet about it, but the trickle down effect has a hard grip on young men in particular - a grip that auction houses like Bonhams are seemingly more than happy to make tighter.