LONDON — “To wake up to one of these things is pretty special — to have a Leonardo at home,” said Joe Kennedy, the director of the contemporary art dealership Unit London, enthusing recently about an elaborately framed LED screen with a digital replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Musician” glowing on his gallery wall. The original was 800 miles away in the Ambrosiana museum in Milan.
The Leonardo was one of six ultra-high-resolution copies of famous paintings from across the centuries in Unit’s moodily lit “Eternalizing Art History” exhibition, which closed on Saturday. The show was the latest attempt by cash-poor museums to generate money by selling nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. Last year, NFTs, usually pegged to the high-flying but volatile Ethereum cryptocurrency, took the market for art and collectibles by storm, with sales estimated in the tens of billions.
Pandemic-related lockdowns and reprioritized government spending have put the world’s public museums under financial pressure. Yet so far, despite the formidable sales figures being achieved by NFTs, few institutions have explored this digital asset as a fund-raising mechanism.
Unit and its Florence-based technology partner Cinello forged licensing agreements with several prominent Italian museums to create a hybrid offering of limited edition LED reproductions in period-style wooden frames, each accompanied by a unique NFT.
Same-size digital versions of the Leonardo portrait, Caravaggio’s “Bowl of Fruit” (also in the Ambrosiana) and Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch” (in the Uffizi in Florence) were offered in editions of nine, ranging in price from 100,000 euros to €500,000 per piece (around $110,000 to $550,000). Fifty percent of sales proceeds went back to the licensing museums.
By the Friday after the show closed, seven sales had been confirmed up to €250,000, which included at least one of the Leonardo NFTs.
The collaboration between Unit and the Italian museums follows earlier attempts by other European institutions to get on the NFT bandwagon. Among those are the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia, which last September held an auction of NFT replicas of five of its best-known paintings that raised $444,000.
The Belvedere museum in Vienna has fractionalized the digitized image of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” into a one-off drop of 10,000 NFTs. This was released on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, priced at 0.65 Ethereum, or €1,850, each. Earlier this week, Irene Jaeger, a media relations officer at the Austrian museum, said around 2,400 of these Klimt NFTs had been sold, generating about €4.3 million.
Producing NFTs …….