D elhi-based sculptor and artist Shovin Bhattacharjee, 45, has been creating digital art since 2002. Among the first Indians to list his work as an NFT, he says, “I have always faced the challenge of limited buyers because the notion still persists that digital art is not authentic art”. The concerns relating to copyright add to buyer hesitation.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are helping change that by enabling creators and collectors to verify authenticity by encrypting an unforgeable signature on the blockchain. Christie’s sale of Everydays: The First 5000 Days by the cryptoartist Beeple made news in March both for its $69 million price tag and the fact that a leading auction house had sold an NFT.
“As the portals [such as Ethereum, Flow, and homegrown WazirX] create a unique code for each work, there is a record of ownership. [A new block of immutable code is added each time the artwork changes hands.] So my digital works are now better received and valued,” says Bhattacharjee, who recently sold his first NFT, titled Exploration , a digital print on canvas for 1.4 Ethereum that takes a gentle jibe at artist Subodh Gupta’s milk cans from the early 2000s.
- Instead of looking only at digital art, auction houses are also minting existing works. “The idea of NFTs is exciting. It is a new format of online trading and it presents us with the possibility of fractional ownership, which can be stimulating and bring in new buyers,” says Dinesh Vazirani, CEO, SaffronArt. “For example, there are many who cannot afford a Gaitonde or a Souza on their own, but if there are, say, six owners, then they could have a share in the artwork. When it sells further, all six can divide the gains equally.” However, Vazirani points out that it will “take a while before we work out the whole chain of logistics”, asking people to watch the Saffronart space in the next three to four months.
- Meanwhile, Prinseps has two NFT auctions in July and August — one featuring sketches by the late Academy Award-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, and the second based on the Avatar series by 1950s-radical artist Gobardhan Ash. Terrain.Art, a new blockchain-powered online platform for South Asian art founded by Aparajita Jain of Nature Morte, is also presenting 27 paintings by modern master Lalu Prasad Shaw as NFTs.
What’s spurring interest?
Provenance and transparency are the big drivers of the NFT boom. “Creating fakes has been happening for ages,” says fine art professional Aakshat Sinha. NFTs, which are cyber equivalents of certificates of ownership of both digital or physical items — think GIFs, music, even casks of whisky — are providing the solution. “By putting information about a work’s provenance on the blockchain, it becomes a collectible. And as concerns about duplication and authenticity of digital art get resolved, more people will adapt to this new digital asset class,” says Bengaluru-based artist Harshit Agrawal. “In the Indian market, we’re already seeing this through platforms like Terrain.art and WazirX NFT.”
Agrawal, who works primarily with artificial intelligence, started minting NFTs last year, after following the market closely for a couple of years. “The works I create lend themselves naturally to the NFT art category,” says the 29-year-old. When he first listed NFTs on SuperRare, a curatorial platform, he priced them conservatively, at around $1,000. “At the time, the market was new and even the legends who are selling their works today north of $100,000 were selling at $1,000-$2,000. Now my NFTs start at about $5,000 in primary sale,” he says, sharing that the price tags vary, depending on the nature of the art — 2D image, video, etc.
Another advantage of NFT: secondary sales. Every time an artwork is resold, the artist gets royalty (between 5% and 15%), which, in theory, means the artist can earn in perpetuity.
Opening up to new collectors
Recently, a collaborative artwork between visual artist Santanu Hazarika and pop icon Ritviz sold for approximately ₹30,000 within 10 seconds of going live on WazirX. Mumbai-based Hazarika believes that blockchain technology is dismantling the culture of gatekeeping. “It is important to remember that digital art was never considered fine art. But because of the NFT boom, there’s a huge shift in focus. It’s empowering,” he says.
As artists, this is a massive development. Not only is it opening up the space to new collectors, but also expanding the definition of ‘artist,’ including everyone from meme makers to TikTok creators.
- “Honestly I am paying no attention to NFT’s. It’s a language that I haven’t grasped yet, but it smells of capitalism and feels like a Ponzi scam. Which is fine if making money is your thing. If making art is your thing, then NFTs aren’t going to get you a show” — Bharti Kher , artist
- “NFT is more than an artwork; it has the potential to make the owning of artwork more democratic. It also brings in several kinds of new aesthetics, such as the ‘cute’ culture that is endemic to Korean pop artists, or the street art used by graffiti artists, and even indigenous styles that are intrinsic to India. It can redefine what ‘success’ in the art market means because it is still open and unique” — Myna Mukherjee, curator-director, Engendered
But there is still an air of unease surrounding NFTs in India. “Often, the hefty fees paid to upload an NFT [mostly on international platforms] override the profits, unless you are a well-known artist who already commands a good price in the market,” says art historian, artist and curator, Koeli Mukherjee-Ghose. “For the funds charged, creative people are not supported by any legal advice or teams, who are working with the NFT infrastructure.”
This is relevant considering the cryptocurrency market crashed recently, and how Indian banks are refusing to convert cryptocurrency into actual money (though the RBI has announced that they cannot refuse it). “Many have experienced instances where they are informed that the payment for their NFT sale has been uploaded, but it doesn’t reflect in the account,” she points out.
Others like Delhi-based artist Pallav Chander believe that the physicality of art can never be substituted. “But NFT art can be a parallel market,” says the 30-year-old. “It is like a Pokemon card. It’s like a publicity stunt and, especially in India, until our market is ready to convert cryptocurrency into actual rupees, it will remain a fun, thrilling format to give yourself a rush of having sold your artwork for $50,00,000 in cryptocurrency that exists only online. In many ways, it is fictional.”
Artists also predict that galleries will not push NFT art until they can ensure that they will get a good percentage in their kitty. “In the art world, it takes time for a trend to stabilise. Only 20% buy art because they love it; 80% consult, speculate and only then invest,” says Chander, adding, “NFTs will remain a digital handshake till all the kinks are worked out.”