Rethinking the Scarcity of Crypto Art

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By Cao Yin

Cryptoart patrons are always facing a problem when choosing their new collections. The works of their favorite artists will have the difference between single edition and multiples. From the perspective of return on investment, Should we invest in single edition or multiples?

Osinachi , “Green Bottle”, 2020, Edition 1 of 1, owner: CaoYin

Before giving my conclusion, let’s go deeper into the concept and origin of multiples. According to the definition by Tate Museum, multiple refers to a series of identical artworks, usually a signed limited edition made specifically for selling.

Hackatao, “DCL — Open at The Gates”, 2020, Edition #16 of 23, owner: CaoYin

In the past, the multiple editions artworks were mainly cast bronze sculptures and prints, such as Auguste Rodin’s famous bronze sculpture The Thinker. Rodin casted 25 of them by himself. Each one is exactly the same, which is the authenticity of Rodin. Artists can maximize the commercial return of their works through artwork multiples.

Multiples are usually signed, numbered, and dated by the artist. The artistic value of each copy is the same. There is no difference between the original version and the multiple version. In addition to artworks specifically for sale, artists generally keep master works for themselves, which will be marked as “AP” (Artist Proof). There are also multiples that were produced and distributed as heritage by artist’s foundation after the artist’s death. For example, the Rodin Foundation remade 26 sculptures of The Thinker in 1998.

Artist’s Multiple Collection, New York art bookshop Printed Matter, A multiple selection of Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono, Sherrie Levine and other famous artists

After the World War II, with the popularity of various avant-garde artistic thoughts, the forms and materials of art creation were no longer restricted, multiples began to become popular. In the 1960s, under the influence of avant-garde art and conceptual art, the practice of multiples itself became an organic part of artistic creation.

Artists use multiples as a means to achieve art democracy, to break the monopoly of the elite class on art collection and interpretation, and use art as a means to spread the political views and social thinking of the artist to the general public, transform the art avant-garde into a political avant-garde. In that scenario, a large number of artists have created a variety of artwork multiples.

For those avant-garde artworks, the non-uniqueness of these multiples not only does not affect the market value of the artwork, but also makes the artwork more meaningful because it carries a richer cultural connotation and political motivation. The behavior of multiples itself has become an artistic expression means.

Duchamp’s “Suitcase” ( Boîte — en- valise ) is one of the most famous multiple artworks, created in 1935–1941. Duchamp selected 69 important works that could represent his art career, made as miniature replicas and arranged them carefully. The first order for this group of works came from the Guggenheim Museum.

However, the current practice of cryptoart multiples on the market has nothing to do with these 1960s avant-garde experiments, multiples are nothing more than a sales method for crypto artists now.

But considering that the majoritiy of cryptoart patrons are non-professional gen-y and gen-z enthusiasts who are not economically affluent, cryptoart multiples can lower the unit price of artworks and the threshold for those young whalesharks to collect cryptoart, and enable cryptoart to be appreciated and collected by more people. However, this does not necessarily render that the investment return of multiple cryptoart will be less than that of single editions.

The art market seems to have been ignoring most traditional economic laws. Although generally speaking, the relationship between supply and demand has a key impact on the price level of artworks, the rarity is an important source of value. However, as the memes of society are shifting profoundly, the art patronism and collection paradigms are also altering accordingly, the principle of scarcity seems to be less decisive now. We can witness this interesting change in the market performance of the “traditional” art market outside of crypto world in recent years.

Last May, Jeff Koons’s stainless steel “ Rabbit” was auctioned in New York for $91.1 million, then he became the most expensive living artist at auction. Since its debut in 1986, this exaggerated steel rabbit has caused public uproar, the influential art critic of New York Times, Roberta Smith, once commented: “elicits a visceral, embarrassing object lus”. However, for a multiple artwork with three copies (in fact, there is also an artist proof), the exorbitant winning bid of $91.1 million seems unbelievable, utterly contrary to the believing of scarcity in the art market.

Jeff Koons “Rabbit” , 1986 stainless steel. 41 x 19 x 12 inches

But collectors’ pursuit of top-notch multiple artworks actually reveals a contradictory value in the world’s ultrarich club: hope to be outstanding while extremely herded. These 0.01% of human being standing at the top of the wealth pyramid want to have a symbol of wealth that can be recognized between each other, symbols like high-end cars, luxury watches, and custom-made clothing, but nothing is more symbolic than these ultra expensive art multiples, distinguished while identical.

The stainless steel rabbit allows you to enter the ultalrich social club (curious readers can Google who the dealer is, a big surprise), you may be able to derive some kind of secret relationship with other ultrariches by having the identical exorbitant rabbit. From this perspective, those top-notch multiples are not only collectibles, but also precious club memberships of the pyramid top.

Moreover, because contemporary art is different from classic art such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, etc., without the precipitation of time, the status of contemporary artworks in Art History is neither stable nor reliable, so the value of contemporary artworks is more and more like metaphysics. In many cases, those patrons even don’t know what artworks they have bided millions or even tens of millions of dollars for are. The multiples at least provide these buyers with a sense of affirmative, because at least others have already paid for the exact same artworks, especially if there are well-known collectors or galleries that have already patronized the same multiple artworks, then new buyers will feel more secure.

This is the case with Jeff Koons’ stainless steel rabbit. When the auction was held last May, another rabbit of the same version was on display at the Oxford University Art Museum, rendering the Rabbit a clearer status in art history.

Although the total value of all crypto fine arts may not be as good as that of a Jeff Koons’s rabbit, the economic mechanism behind this stainless steel multiples is also common to cryptoart multiples. I tried to sum up three principles here:

1. Multiples can provide price reference between each other, especially in auction, thereby achieving price support.

(This is especially important for the cryptoart market that is in the price discovery stage in general)

2. Multiples can become a social identity symbol for collectors with same multiples and a social bond between each other. Imagine what would happen if you and KAWS had the same crypto multiples.

(This has been reflected in the small cryptoart market. Since I bidded the Green Bottle of Osinachi, several Osinachi patrons have contacted me on Twitter)

3, Multiples have a larger display exposure because more collectors will own and show the identical work

(This is very, very, very important for the current cryptoart market. Currently, there is a lack of display scenes for cryptoart, artworks in the hands of collectors are mainly displayed through various social medias, such as Instagram, Twitter, Wechat, Facebook, etc., and most of the galleries of cryptoart are online and also displayed only on social medias and cryptoart platforms, such as Superrare, KnownOrigin, etc.)

Regarding the last point, I want to dig deeper here. Although there is no widely accepted valuation model for cryptoart, I believe the value of cryptoart should be closely related to the display traffic of artworks, and according to the famous Metcalfe’s Law, the value of the network is equal to the square of traffic. Cryptoart is a native artwork on the Internet, so the value of cryptoart should also be proportional to the square of the traffic. We can use a formula to express it (though not precise).

V=Vol²*n

V: value of crypto artwork

Vol: display traffic volume

n:proportional relation constant

Suppose that the traffic of an edition 1 crypto artwork is 10, according to the formula above, its value = 100n. Suppose that the traffic of an edition 1 of 10 crypto artwork is also 10, then the total traffic of this 10 pieces multiple is 10*10 = 100, according to the formula the value of the whole multiple = 100²*n = 10,000n, and the value of one single edition among the whole edition of 10 multiples = 10,000n/10 = 1,000n, which is even greater than the value of the edition 1 crypto artwork.

Of course, this calculation has many limitations. For example, the traffic of a truly outstanding edition 1 artwork should be greater than the traffic of the whole set of multiples. Moreover, the number of editions of multiples cannot be excessively too much, otherwise it will completely violate the principle of scarcity, and the value formula will no longer be useful, the excessive number of editions will also cause the collector to lose interest and meaning in showcasing his edition. Considering the current scale of the cryptoart world, it might be within 10 editions that is the appropriate number of multiples.

With the generational change of art collectors and the socio-political macro evolution, the collection paradigm has also undergone fundamental changes. In the eyes of the rising young collectors, especially among generation y and z, the distinct line between Fine Art and trendy products is becoming blurred, so those young collectors are more open to multiple artworks with commodity attributes.

In 2018 , Pace Prints introduced three screen printing works of superstar KAWS, “Lost Time,” “Alone Again” and “Far Far Down” into Art Basel Miami Beach. A total of 100 editions were sold at a price of $65,000 per set. At the VIP opening ceremony of the art exhibition, it was sold on the booth for 15 minutes in a “first-come-first-served” manner. The organizer also conducted marketing through Instagram. As a result, this set of multiples was very popular. Not only were all sold out in 15 minutes, but the organizers had to sell by lot.

KAWS, “LOST TIME,” “ALONE AGAIN” and “FAR FAR DOWN” (2018), screen printing , 32 x 53 ¼ feet per frame , edition of 100. ⠀

In the past, multiples were a way to democratize art by artists such as Duchamp, Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Boyle. However, in the era of the Internet where social networking is impossible without Facebook and Twitter, the multiples have given the artwork new network value and social tool attributes. For outstanding artworks that truly stand the test of the market and academics, the multiples will not belittle the market value, but will make the artwork more valuable. It’s time to reassess the principle of scarcity.

Author profile
Cao Yin

Managing Director of the Digital Renaissance Foundation, has been investing and incubating DeFi projects since 2017, including Acala, Dipole and etc. He is a staunch supporter and researcher of digital art, hoping to reconcile rational digital finance and perceptual digital art like Yin and Yang.

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