The NFT craze has sparked renewed interest in generative art – art that is created autonomously through computer programming or coding. But Phillips’ online sale dedicated to the medium, which ended yesterday, July 20, reflected how the art market was negatively impacted by the cryptocurrency crash in June.
Ex-Machina: A History of Generative Art grossed £854,028 ($715,871), less than a quarter of the low estimate of £4.1 million ($4.9 million) and just a sixth of the high estimate of 5 £.2 million ($6.2 million). Only 20 lots out of 44 were sold, and some of them fetched prices below the low estimate. Both older physical works and newer NFTs were offered during the auction, which ran from July 11-20.
“The estimates were determined before the state of the crypto market changed,” Benjamin Kandler, Phillips’ digital art project manager, told Artnet News. “The exhibition is open to the public [in London] until August and we have ongoing discussions with collectors about after-sales, especially given that the market has recently returned to a healthier state.”
Although sales were disappointing, showing the generative art and NFT markets as volatile, a few pieces performed well. The top lot was that of Texas artist Tyler Hobbs Fidenza No. 61coined an NFT on June 11, 2021, composed of curving fuchsia stripes of varying widths and lengths on a black background; The piece flew above its estimate of £80,000 to £120,000 ($143,242) to fetch £302,400 ($354,923).
Next came 0xDEAFBEEF Series 5: Advection – Token 22, minted June 29, 2022: The black and white audiovisual piece consists of ever-evolving wavy lines and electronic music created through computer coding and algorithms. It sold for £252,000 ($300,992), ranging in estimate from £200,000 ($238,850) to £300,000 ($358,270).
In terms of physical labor was the outstanding lot (De)ordersa unique piece of nine abstract, geometric drawings created by French artist Vera Molnar, a pioneer of computer generated art, in 1974. It sold for £100,800 ($128,980), just topping the £80,000 (95,540) to £100,000 ($119,420) estimate.
However, well over half of the lots did not find buyers, including four works by Canadian artist Dmitri Cherniak from the series ringtones who were expected to spearhead sales.
Other victims included works by Croatian computer artist and cyberneticist Vladimir Bonačić from 1969–1970 – Bonačić’s computer-generated photographs and a dynamic object made of 256 orange bulbs and the same number of aluminum square tubes did not sell. In contrast, works by generative art pioneers Herbert W. Franke and Gottfried Jäger from the 1950s to 1970s sold for low five-digit amounts at or just above their estimates.
According to Kandler, bidders and buyers came “from the USA, Europe, Asia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Australia and beyond”. “This [buyers] ranging from those in the more traditional 20th century realm and contemporary art to watch collectors and of course crypto-native clients, some of whom were new to Phillips,” he added.
The auction, which sought to trace the history of generative art from pioneers like Molnar, Franke and Jäger to NFT generative artists Snowfro and Cherniak, was billed by Phillips as the first of its kind.
“You have to experiment in establishing new markets and generative art stands as a major movement in recent art history that’s receiving rapidly growing attention,” Kandler said. “We took a historical approach, trying to ascertain the true originality and importance of the artists involved, some of whom created generative art in the 1950s.”
Sotheby’s New York held a similarly themed auction entitled “Natively Digital 1.3: Generative Art” in April this year. Coming in at 15 lots, it was a clean sale with tame results, raising $2.3 million for an overall estimate of between $2.3 million and $3.5 million. A comparison between the two sales shows how much the market has faltered in three months as a result of the cryptocurrency crash.
There, a living abstract work by Cherniak was the standout lot, selling for $882,000, below its estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million. A color-saturated, kinetic work combining multiple images by Argentine artist Manolo Gamboa Naon also sold for less than estimate, fetching $352,800 (vs. $400,000-$600,000 estimate).
In addition to NFTs, Sotheby’s auction included historically important, metaphysical pieces by the American artist Roman Verostko, who were inspired by British mathematician Alan Turing’s conceptual description of a machine capable of performing any type of algorithmic mathematical calculation.
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