In its short history of existence, the nontangible Internet currency bitcoin has earned an uneven reputation, associated with drug sales, pornography, gun-running, tax evasion, money-laundering and hackers, but increasingly this “cryptocurrency” has gained legitimacy and is being used for a variety of online purchases, such as Etsy.com and Overstock.com. Will artwork and other collectibles be next?
Perhaps. Burning Man, the nonprofit summer arts festival based in California, began accepting bitcoin donations in late 2014, and in March of 2014 Chatham Township, New Jersey-based wealth management company The Leo Group purchased on behalf of a client a multi-million dollar c.1720 Stradivarius violin with bitcoin from the New York City stringed instruments boutique Carpenter Fine Violins. (“The Carpenters are knowledgeable people and had heard of bitcoin, but we had to construct the deal and walk them through it,” said Leo Group managing director Matthew Allain.) Some high-priced artworks have been put up for sale by bitcoin buyers – a 1903 Paul Gauguin oil “The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa (Marquesan Man in the Red Cape)” was publicly offered for sale last April at a price of 90,000 bitcoin (or $45 million) by an unknown seller who offered prospective buyers the email address of email@example.com, and a 55” x 85” collage by Peter Beard, “Orphaned Cheetah Cubs” was offered by bitpremier.com – although they do not appear to have found buyers.
A number of individuals – some artists, some not – have attempted to establish online venues for the sale of art using bitcoin, with limited success. In the year that it has been in existence as an “experimental artist’s platform,” the Vienna, Austria-based Cointemporary has exhibited 20-plus artworks, only selling one of them, according to Valentin Ruhry, one of the Cointemporary’s directors. The site is more experimental “than a commercial venture,” and what is experimental about it is that buyers pay for artworks not with dollars or Euros but in bitcoin.
Cointemporary is not the only art venue accepting bitcoin – one may also shop at other online venues (btcartgallery.com, bitdazzle.com/art, art4bitcoin.net and bitpremier.com/4-fine-art-antiques) – but it does also permit payment for shipping to be in bitcoin. The site does not represent any artists but has been consigned work by some whom the gallery had contacted either directly or through the brick-and-mortar galleries that does represent them. For its efforts, Cointemporary receives a 40 percent commission (if the artist wants to be paid in dollars) or 30 percent if the entire transaction is conducted in bitcoin. “I told them, when I was asked by my dealer, Clifton Benevento, if I would be willing to include a work of mine on its site, that I want dollars,” said Polly Apfelbaum. Probably, a number of the other artists in the online gallery’s display also would prefer a currency they know to one they don’t, but it wasn’t one of Apfelbaum’s installations that sold.
So far, other artists who have had their work displayed on bitcoin-accepting online galleries have not been disappointed at the experience, even if nothing has sold. “I like the idea of trading in bitcoins as it has parallels with the speculative nature of the art market,” said Marita Fraser, a Viennese artist who showed a 2014 painting titled “O.T.” and priced at 3.5 bitcoin on Cointemporary. “I see trading art in bitcoins as an interesting experiment, and an art project within itself, which calls into question the value of things in the world and different kinds of exchange. On the other hand, British “sketch artist” Oli Witcomb claimed that has sold two drawings on art4bitcoin.net, and “I’ve had a few donations.”
Bitcoin also may appeal to artists who like to oppose the status quo not only in their art but in their approach to life. Samuel Carlson, a painter in Boulder, Colorado who has displayed his work on art4bitcoin.net, as well as on his own Web site, noted that the online currency “allows people like myself to set up a digital easel, and start busking for virtual tips with what’s the equivalent of a chalk drawing in the park. People walk by, see a cool picture and toss a few bucks into your hat, for brightening up their day.”
Bitcoin, which was first created in 2009, is referred to as a “cryptocurrency,” a form of money based not on the value of gold or other currencies but on computer code that controls the creation of new units and their transfer from one computer user to another. Banks and governments are not involved in the production or movement of new bitcoin (the U.S. Treasury refers to bitcoin as a “decentralized currency”), and “payments are processed almost instantly, with close to zero fees,” Ruhry claimed.
Bitcoin suffers from a bad image, starting with its exchange rate volatility (within the past few years, it has ranged from one bitcoin equaling $160 to $1,200), theft by hackers (in February 2014, 744,000 bitcoin disappeared from the Japanese virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox) and an association with illegal activity. “So far as I know, bitcoin is used only for speculative and for illegal and borderline illegal activities, such as paying for drugs, guns, porn,” said Gerald Friedman, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts. John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo, also noted the negative associations, stating that bitcoin has been used to evade governmental oversight. In addition, because of the anonymity of the Internet, from a purely business perspective, “there is a problem of knowing your customers.”
Ruhry acknowledged that it is near impossible to identify who the audience for buying art with bitcoin is “due to the nature of the anonymity of bitcoin. However, if I had to guess, the people we have dealt with so far had higher education. Some are in technology or economy, but all of them are at least interested in those fields (which is to be expected in the bitcoin-sphere). It is an international and with some exceptions mainly male crowd.”
The amount of bitcoin in the world and who has it are open questions. Dustin Hinrichs, a 31 year-old economics student at Montana State University in Bozeman who runs the Bitcoin Art Gallery, claimed that one million people in the English-speaking world hold bitcoin as do another million and a half around the world. The appeal of this type of currency is that transactions may take place without middlemen – the Bitcoin Art Gallery doesn’t take commissions but accepts “tips” – which gives artists “full value” for their work. In this way, “bitcoin facilitates people producing art.”
The volatility in the exchange rate and the fact that “banks have declined deposits of bitcoin into accounts” has been discouraging for Orlando, Florida painter Alex Vera who has made one sale whose payment is “still stored in my digital wallet.” However, he noted that “bitcoin could make huge gains again in value and would pay off once it is accepted everywhere.”
The mainstream art selling businesses have tended to shy away from bitcoin. “We haven’t taken bitcoin and don’t plan to,” according to a spokesman for Sotheby’s, and Christie’s only permits payment in the form of “wire transfers, bank drafts or cashier’s orders, cash or checks.” Leslie Hindman, owner of the Chicago-based auction house, said that no one ever has asked about paying in this way. “Nobody has wanted to pay in bitcoin, thankfully.” Brick-and-mortar art galleries also have not shown interest in cryptocurrency. Jo Backer Laird, legal counsel to the Art Dealers Association of America, claimed that she has not heard of anyone accepting bitcoin and “would be surprised to hear that anyone did.”
“I suppose buying art on line will become more mainstream in general, and I can absolutely see bitcoins as a viable currency for trading in art, but not for a while, because the big money is still traditionally being spent in conventional currency and change is generational,” said New York art advisor Wendy Cromwell. “Another 15 years, maybe?”
The tech world has become more comfortable with bitcoin’s legitimacy. In December, Microsoft began to accept bitcoin – which currently is trading at $226.34 per bitcoin, as of February 7th – for buyers of Windows Phone, Xbox Music, Xbox Video, apps, games and other company products, following a similar move by both Apple and Dell last June. The King’s College, a liberal arts Christian college in Manhattan’s financial district, began accepting bitcoin as tuition in 2013, although Smith College controller and associate treasurer Laura Smiarowski still spoke for the rest of higher education when she said that “Smith has not yet accepted payment using bitcoin.”
Will Bitcoin join the more customary forms of payment, such as cash, personal checks, credit and charge cards, e-cash and PayPal? All of these pose certain risks for artists — cash is great, but who wants to worry about the theft of a lockbox at an art fair booth? — and Bitcoin is just the latest area of insecurity. Futuristic and for the intrepid, Bitcoin may be worth keeping an eye on.
By Daniel Grant