The British Museum should think again on NFTs


This week the museum announced that it is planning to sell a selection of JMW Turner’s paintings, including the watercolour A Storm (Shipwreck), as NFTs. It is creating a range of different categories: nine “ultra rare” NFTs where only two versions will be created and one will be retained by the museum, down to “open exhibition”, with a minimum of 99 sold. 

Prices will range from £4,999 for the most exclusive down to £799 for the least rare. (Is it just me or does that old retail trick of ending the price in nines look a little tacky when discussing the value of works by Turner, even at one digital remove?)

This is not the British Museum’s first excursion into the wacky world of NFTs. It teamed up with a French start-up called LaCollection last year to sell NFTs of paintings by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, including his most famous work The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The auction raised $45,000, although, of course, the purchases were actually made with cryptocurrencies, 10.6 ethereum, to be precise.

Nor is it alone. Last May, the Uffizi in Florence sold an NFT of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo for $170,000 and in July the Hermitage in St Petersburg sold NFTs of works by Giorgione, Kandinsky, Leonardo, Monet and Van Gogh for nearly $500,000 in total.

The appeal of all this for museums, many of whom have suffered a hit to their revenues because of Covid, is clear. By getting someone to write a few lines of code and then create a bit of marketing hype they are effectively able to conjure considerable sums of money out of thin air. 

For the buyers, NFTs are like any other speculative asset: you will make money from them if you can find someone who will buy it off you for more than you paid.

However, there’s been more than a little scepticism about the whole enterprise. NFTs were originally conceived as a way of selling works of art for which there might not otherwise be a market, not as a way of selling something without selling it. Buyers of NFTs have no ownership rights to the physical paintings themselves.

We’re still at the early stage of figuring out all the legal nuances of NFTs, how secure they are from hacking and how they should be valued. Does, for example, an NFT minted by the artist who created a particular work of art have a different status to one minted by an institution that owns one? It’s hard to say.


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