Indian Art Enters Multi-Billion Dollar Crypto Token Market
Indian modern art is starting to appear on the amazing digital market in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that can suddenly fetch millions of dollars – even though they exist somewhere in the crypto stratosphere of Ethereum and Bitcoin blockchains and that you cannot hang them on your wall as unique creations.
Two relatively small South Asian art and collectibles auction houses, Mumbai-based Prinseps and Dubai-based Artiana, launched NFTs last week. Others are planning launches and exploring the potential, trying to gauge the appeal of the little-understood technology to existing art collectors and a wider range of speculative digital buyers.
Prinseps auctioned off relatively inexpensive small figurative works (right) painted in the late 1940s by Gobardhan Ash, a little-known but important Bengali artist. Artiana has a fixed-price sale of larger and more expensive works by the better-known Sakti Burman, who lives between Paris and Delhi and still actively paints.
Another type of NFT sale is planned by Kent Charugundla, a major New York-based Indian art collector and blockchain specialist, with massive work by revered MF Husain. (He talks about it with the curators of Prinseps and others in this YouTube session which also covers the works of Gobardhan Ash.)
Many traditional collectors of modern Indian art are mystified and scathing about NFTs, which use the same technology as cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin to create a certificate of ownership over a specific digital file that cannot be copied or falsified.
Pratap Bose, a longtime Mumbai-based collector and dealer who bought several of the tokens at Prinseps auction, considers them a good investment. “Like the stock market, it takes a punt,” he says, adding that much of Indian art is undervalued, so there is great potential.
For artists, NFTs offer a way to benefit from the often substantial price increases that occur after their works have initially been painted and sold. In some countries, including the UK and EU, artists are granted resale rights which give a percentage commission on their works in the secondary professional market. This lasts throughout their lifetime and for 70 years after their death. This does not apply in India, which will increase the potential interest of artists in having their works offered as tokens.
Estimates of NFT’s worldwide sales last year range from $18 billion to $25 billion, up from $94.9 million in 2020. They vary “from cartoon monkeys to music videos” (as the said Reuters) with images, videos and even lands in virtual worlds.
The tokens burst into an unsuspecting art world in March 2021 when a collage of jpeg files of tiny digital sketches made daily for over 13 years by contemporary South Carolina artist Beeple, sold $69.3 million at Christie’s. It had launched with a bid of $100 just two weeks earlier. the FT reports that “the artist, whose first name is Mike Winkelmann, summed up his reaction to the sale with a tweet: ‘holy f..k'”.
Major auction houses and artists have cashed in on the craze, but they seem reluctant to bring South Asian art to the virtual table. Christie’s, Bonham’s and Sotheby’s have not yet decided what to do. Saffronart, the Mumbai-based market leader, is instead focused on reinventing auctions with a new platform that Dinesh Vazirani, the founder and CEO, plans to launch next month.
Deepanjana Klein, head of Christie’s South Asian art business, gave me the best logic for what’s going on: “NFTs are an additional art form, like photography, installations and digital art or AI that entered the art world at different points in time,” she said. They were about “the democratization of art and the sharing of digital art that comes with NFT – anyone can download the art but the token only belongs to one person”.
The democratization comes from the fact that anyone can access the token on the internet, while only the buyer owns the token and can sell it – although this can also be said of ordinary paintings whose images can be viewed and shared by anyone on the internet. The owner of the NFT can of course print the image and post it on a wall, knowing that he owns the digital token. The original painting could sometimes also be purchased.
This is what Prinseps offered on January 14 in its auction of the original painting and an NFT of 35 works by Gobardhan Ash (1907-1996). The paintings, oil on board and gouache on board or paper, ranged in size, usually around 13 inches x 11 inches, and cost between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh or around $670 to $1,340. The tokens fetched Rs 12,500 to Rs 35,000 – $170 to $470. This matches some market calculations that the tokens will yield 25-30% of the original art. (Catalog and explanation here)
Prinseps decided to get into NFTs with Ash’s 1940s works because he felt his small paintings were in tune with the early style of cryptopunk imagery and vibrant colors that fueled NFT’s huge growth. Last year. The works “were very avant-garde for the time – and 70 years later, cryptopunks have become commonplace,” says Prinseps curator Brijeshwar Gohil.
Some Prinseps buyers went on January 14 for the original and the token, while others chose just one. A few collectors tried to earn as much as possible, judging by how often certain “alias numbers” appeared on the auction’s website during auctions.
Among them was Bose, a former top advertising executive. He says Ash is an under-recognized artist from Bengal “who never got his due”. It intrigued him, not to hang artwork on the walls of his house but as a crypto investment.
Prinseps’ next NFT auction will likely be fashion sketches by Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020), a film costume designer and Oscar winner, whose works he sold earlier.
While Prinseps made a deal with Ash’s estate for the NFT rights and held the auction on its own website with purchases payable in Indian rupees, Artiana made a deal with Sakti Burman and her family to sell 40 NFTs on the OpenSea crypto website. The works are priced in OpenSea’s Ethereum cryptocurrency, along with the conventional monetary equivalents – around $20,000-$40,000.
Dollar rates were negotiated by Lavesh Jagasia, who runs Artiana, with Burman based on what the artist felt he should receive relative to current market values - and what buyers might accept, given that he This is India’s first such sale.
Jagasia says Burman’s works are particularly suited to NFTs because of the fresco-like images produced by the oil-on-paper marbling and canvas technique, which the artist used between the 1980s and 2015.
An early 1981 work (154x114cm) from the series fetched the artist’s record auction price of $330,000 [approximately Rs 2.4 crore (Rs 24 million)] in an Artiana sale last October. The paintings range in size from 116x89cm to 162x130cm and sold, says Artiana, over the 35 years for between Rs 50 and 85 lakhs or $67,000 to $114,000 at current conversion rates.
The originals of the 40 works are now in private collections and Artiana is trying to find the owners so that she can offer them the NFT of their paintings. This process will end on February 8 (Burman’s 87th birthday), when unsold tokens will generally be available on the OpenSea website.
The other current NFT investment offer, which lasts until 2022, consists of tokens for a famous 60ft x 10ft mural, Flash, by MF Husain, one of India’s leading modernists and a member of the progressives of the mid-1900s. Charugundla purchased the work, which was painted in 1975 and is Husain’s largest work, directly from the artist in 2002 It consists of 12 panels depicting galloping horses, a favorite of Husain.
The NFT “drop” is on a special platformwith Prinseps helping on marketing. Subsequent secondary sales will take place on OpenSea. Investors can buy small random parts or “traits” of NFTs at prices that Charugundla says will be set relatively low. Buyers who manage to assemble what is called a “royal flush” of 62 “strokes” will receive an NFT of the entire work which can then be redeemed.
Although the world of virtual currency has made headlines due to astronomical increases in values like the $69.3 million sale of Beeple, the cryptopunk imagery craze has been built on very high prices. low, which Prinseps echoed with his Ash works. It remains to be seen if there is a virtual market extending to the $20,000 to $40,000 that Artiana wants for its Burmese, and how much speculation there is on the Husain.
The skepticism remains. The total market value of NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain is held by just 9% of accounts, according to an expert, disproving the idea that they somehow democratically spread the assets widely.
The Washington Post reported last March that MetaKovan, which paid the $69.3 million, was actually increasing the value of the NFTs it created earlier. He had purchased 20 other works from Beeple for $2.2 million, split them into 10 million blockchain-based tokens, and sold 25% to the public. As bids for the new work continued to rise, so did the value of those tokens, which reached around $51 million on March 11, the day it won Christie’s auction.
The post office conclusion? “The recent digital art frenzy may be less a sign of an artistic revolution than a gold rush in highly speculative blockchain technology.”
This article was originally published on Riding the elephant.