Scams, scams … The dark side of NFTs excites the art world

Do you know Pac? Fewocious? XCopy, Hackatao or Beeple? If these names do not mean anything to you, you have missed the phenomenon of 2021: the great explosion of crypto art. This rise has turned these wonders of digital art, hitherto unknown to laymen, into pixel moguls. These multimillionaires (in cryptocurrencies) owe not only their fortune to their creativity or their virtuosity in handling the graphic palette. Their success would not be what it is without NFT, non-fungible token, a non-fungible token for insiders. Do not be fooled by its barbaric surroundings. The term is so popular that it was voted Word of the Year by Collins, the English Dictionary! In short, this technology means a digital property certificate that connects a work and its creator to the collector or art lover who acquires it. The goal is to ensure that the canvas or sculpture is the original and not a disgusting copy. An NFT is purchased with a cryptocurrency, mainly ethereum, and remains stored in blockchain, an unadulterated cyber registry.

“The idea of ​​being able to claim possession of a digital object is unprecedented,” explains John Karp, art lover and co-author of the essay. NFT revolution. Birth of the crypto art movement. By distinguishing the original work from its copies, the NFT creates rarity and therefore value. ”

However, this distinction remains artificial because technology cannot prevent a digital work from being duplicated. “So what’s the point of paying small fortunes for a pixel canvas when a right click is enough to save it on my smartphone screen?” ask many opponents. “It’s like buying an authentic masterpiece, knowing that copies of counterfeiters are circulating,” says Jean-Michel Pailhon. This one loves street art and digital art, a senior employee of a cryptocurrency-affiliated security firm, has already acquired several NFTs, such as this portrait produced by an artificial intelligence, inspired by the thousands of 16th- and 17th-century paintings. “I would be happy if this work were copied and pasted everywhere, for this sharing contributes to the artist’s infamous and the value of the canvas of which I remain the sole owner, he confides. In my eyes, the material possession is crucially less than intellectual property.”

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Questioning the role of merchants

NFTs promise to change the lives of artists. Programmed in blockchain, the smart contract (intelligent contract) guarantees, for example, that the author automatically receives royalties on subsequent resale. If this principle of a “resale right” is not new, in practice it was seldom respected when the work changed hands.

Technology also calls into question the role of traditional merchants, curators or gallery owners. Most of the time, NFT purchases are made through electronic marketplaces that ignore these intermediaries. OpenSea, the most popular, is valued at more than $ 13 billion since the last fundraising in early January. It claims more than one million users who exchange virtual works through its platform. With a few clicks, thanks to her, an obscure field mouse worker can become an icon of crypto art. “Artists without the slightest assessment, but who have a strong community on social networks, can achieve record sales that propel them in a matter of hours among the largest,” sums up Thierry Ehrmann, the founding CEO of Artmarket, a specialist in the offering and sale of works of art online. Last year, American Mike Winkelmann, alias Beeple, a 40-year-old digital artist who had hitherto escaped all radar – he had never exhibited or participated in auctions – climbed onto the podium of the most living artists bank liabilities, behind David Hockney and Jeff Koons. His work Weekdays: The first 5,000 days which collected 5,000 of his creations in a single JPEG file, was sold for more than $ 69 million, a record.

The success of NFTs is certainly not limited to these astronomical prices. “9 out of 10 sales do not exceed $ 20,000, and nearly half are below $ 1,000,” assures Thierry Ehrmann. The expert therefore sees in this an unexpected opportunity to open up the art to a younger and less affluent public than the population, who are used to frequenting traditional auction rooms. But given the excesses that come with the explosion of the market, he is likely to be disappointed.

Far from democratizing digital art, certain categories of NFT are increasingly seen as external signs of wealth. This is especially the case for the avatars of monkeys in the series Bored Ape Yacht Club or even these ultra-pixelated portraits of the family CryptoPunks, characters generated automatically by an algorithm. Sports and showbiz stars snatch these new virtual icons with hundreds of thousands of dollars to show them off on social networks instead of their usual profile picture. In this race for the most bling-bling people, Eminem holds the rope more than ever. The monkey portrait he gave himself in January, for 123.45 ethereum ($ 450,000), is more than twice as expensive as CryptoPunk acquired last summer by another famous rapper, Jay-Z.

“Violent beating”

Should we wonder that this pursuit of art does not only attract purists? “NFTs were pushed from 2017 by players in the cryptocurrency market with the aim of promoting the circulation of virtual money through new transactions. Fictitious artists were sometimes even launched and staged to sell works at completely crazy prices that do not reflect the reality of the market at all “, confides a specialist. He predicts a “violent correction”.

Beginners abstain from voting. Although often presented as models of transparency and authenticity, NFT transactions are pretexts for fraud of any kind, making this supposed Eldorado a wild west infested with crooks, fraudsters and cyber-manipulators. .

Researchers point to wash tradea technique that consists of buying you a work you already own, pretending to be an enlightened collector, to increase the value of the property … Or laundering money.

Even more annoying for a technology presented as a guarantee of authenticity, the frauds are multiplied. At TikTok, a tutorial explains how to create and then sell an NFT from an image stolen from the web. Imitating its original creator is child’s play: OpenSea, for example, requires no more from the seller than a sworn statement. Last year, smart guys did not hesitate to pretend to be Banksy, the British icon for street artto put NFTs up for sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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But much less popular artists are not spared this scam. This is especially true for those who openly exhibit their work on DeviantArt’s online gallery to raise awareness of themselves. Since last year, their cyber showcase has been the subject of looting in order. Witness, for example, the Twitter thread @NFTtheft, which was launched in September to document these deceptions. The works are copied, with a single right-click, and then put up for sale in the form of NFT without the knowledge of the real authors, on Opensea or one of its competitors, Rarible, Decentraland, SuperRare, Mintable … “That don ‘t stop, creators get their works stolen by unscrupulous people who make money on them with NFTs without the right writers receiving anything … And during this time we are told that NFTs are the solution to pay artists? Cheating is so widespread that DeviantArt has developed an artificial intelligence to identify looted works.But it is limited to sending a warning message to the victims.It is up to them to approach the responsible platform.Without much hope to repair the cheat, unfortunately.Because the almighty blockchain is designed to be inviolable: once an NFT has been recorded, it is impossible to delete it …


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