You want a piece of Emily?
On Friday, a photograph of stunning model Emily Ratajkowski goes under the gavel at venerable auction house Christie’s.
Or more precisely a photograph of Ratajkowski — standing in front of a photograph of Ratajkowski — from Sports Illustrated that was posted on Instagram Feb. 18, 2014. The Instagram post was then transferred to canvas by artist Richard Prince, which sold later that year for $80k … to Ratajkowski.
But the winner of this auction won’t get something that can hang in a frame.
Instead, this will be the prize: 12731802054160154759290488904109869109108530284611516750060019851722433
232897 — ownership of an online ID number.
The Ratajkowski image exists only digitally — a collection of pixels, sold! To the man in the third row holding the MacBook!
But not so fast: “Emily owns the image as the image is not part of the medium,” explained a Christie’s rep. “The work itself is the token alone, and the buyer will receive a token to the work.” Huh.
The piece, called “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution” is just the latest high-profile sale of an NFT, or a non-fungible token.
Whoever buys 29-year-old Ratajkowski’s piece won’t get a material item, but they will be helping her reclaim her image after having it “wrested from her for another’s profit,” as the auction’s accompanying essay says.
The model wrote in a 2020 essay for New York Magazine’s The Cut that she was paid just $150 for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue session that produced the image she’s seen standing in front of. Prince then co-opted it for his own series, Ratajkowski bought it back and now she’s getting a little revenge by re-appropriating the image that Prince appropriated from her, comparing her plight to sexy subjects of artwork throughout history.
“Works of unnamed muses sell for millions of dollars and build careers of traditionally male artists, while the subjects of these works receive nothing,” she wrote on Instagram.
“NFTs carry the potential to allow women ongoing control over their image and the ability to receive rightful compensation for its usage and distribution.”
NFTs are everywhere, and if you’re like many people, you’ve desperately avoided learning what they are in hopes they’ll just go away. No such luck.
In simplest terms, an NFT is a way to buy and sell digital content. Most anything that can exist on a computer screen can theoretically be sold.
The NFT market has exploded more than 2,000% in recent months (although the frenzied demand appears to be cooling somewhat). Some $2 billion was spent on the digital assets in the first quarter of the year, according to Nonfungible.com.
An NFT of a digital collage from Beeple — a k a Mike Winkelmann, an artist for whom $100 was previously the ceiling for a physical print of his work — sold for $69 million in March.
For example, digital artists, who never had physical objects to sell, now have a new way to monetize their work.
Rock band Kings of Leon offered a $50 NFT version of its latest album containing bonus content and reportedly pulled in $2 million. And model Cara Delevingne just announced she’s auctioning off a NFT video about her vagina later this month.
The Ratajkowski piece is being offered without an estimate in order to let “the market alone” determine its final price, according to Christie’s. Translation: We’re hoping Elon Musk smokes too much and reaches for his credit card.
But the NFT world has also found a way to put price tags on things that were never for sale in the first place. The NBA is selling game highlights — sort of like video trading cards — and has reportedly raked in more than $390 million already.
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sold an NFT of his first tweet for $2.9 million in March.
“We’ve done things where [social-media] influencers can sell $30k in a minute,” says Donnie Dinch, CEO of Bitski, a California-based online NFT storefront.
“To some extent, it’s the next step in human development in terms of relating to digital worlds and digital items,” says Clyde Smith, founder of online directory CryptoArtNet. “They start to become more than just digital images.”
The technology that allows them to become “more” is called blockchain (likely another term you’ve desperately avoided). Instead of storing information on a centralized server, data is copied and spread out over a network of computers, making it more secure.
NFTs are recorded on the blockchain, meaning they’re nearly impossible to lose, hack or change. (Weirdly though, the content an NFT represents is often not stored on the blockchain, so if it goes poof, well…)
And while it’s pretty clear what the sellers are getting out of this, what about the buyers? Besides the all-important ability to brag about their purchase on social media, that is.
“The key driver we have seen for purchasing NFTs is that they build community,” says Cameron Bale, co-founder of October’s New York City-based conference NFT.NYC. “Buying an NFT is a digital way of putting your hand up and saying you’re a part of something — part of a tribe.”
“It’s a low-key Patreon energy,” Dinch says of the online platform that allows creators to get paid directly by consumers for their work. “[Buyers] are excited to support the people they’re fans of.”
Will buyers continue to be crazy enough to keep spending potentially tens of thousands on something that doesn’t exist physically? Probably.
As Smith points out, many things in society only have value because we agree that they do.
“Money is an agreement,” he says. “Is it real? It’s only real because we agree to accept it.”