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Judy Woodruff: Christie's, the auction house, sold a work of art yesterday for a record-breaking $69.3 million. That is for a piece that exist, except digitally.
The sale, reportedly to an investor known only by a pseudonym, is seen by many as history-making in the development of both digital art and cryptocurrency markets.
Jeffrey Brown takes a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: He goes by the moniker people Beeple, real name, Mike Winkelmann. He creates digital images and videos, humorous, grotesque, social commentary.
And part of a series he's been working on called "Everydays," one drawing a day for 13 years and running, just sold for nearly $70 million.
Woman: Oh, my God.
Jeffrey Brown: Heady stuff for a man who has a hard time even calling himself an artist.
Mike Winkelmann: I just feel like the term artist is super pretentious. And so I would never be like, I'm an artist. I just can't even say it.
Jeffrey Brown: We spoke to Winkelmann, 39, before the outcome of the auction. He calls himself a designer. A computer science grad, he'd built a successful commercial career, but he's also made his own work, including the "Everydays."
Mike Winkelmann: It sort of over the years has kind of gone from being very abstract at times, to now it's quite literal, the things that are happening in the news and different pop culture things.
But there's also a lot of just weird stuff. It's definitely not for everybody. I will say that.
Jeffrey Brown: But, until recently, he faced a major challenge.
Mike Winkelmann: I wouldn't necessarily say that I didn't know how to sell it. I would say there was no real way to sell it.
I think there was -- you could sort of print out my work, and you could kind of collect it that way, but that's not really native to, like, the medium that I make this on. I make this on a computer. It's meant to be viewed on a screen.
Jeffrey Brown: A problem for digital art, it can be reproduced with a simple click, and it often lives freely online.
So, why would anyone spend money on it? And how, after all, can someone own it?
An answer comes in what's called an NFT, or non-fungible token. Put simply, an NFT is a digital proof of ownership for a digital work like Beeple's art. And that's what people are buying.
Noah Davis handled the sale for Christie's.
Noah Davis: One way to wrap your head around this is, if you're looking at our Web site, and you see the illustration the lot page, that's a metaphor for the artwork. It's a symbol of the artwork, but it is not the artwork itself. The artwork itself is a long code.
Jeffrey Brown: What makes an NFT special is that it's one-of-a-kind and impossible to copy. It relies on block-chain technology, sometimes described as a kind of digital record keeping.
It's a secure way to track when digital items change hands online. And since only one person can own an NFT, the digital art associated with it suddenly becomes collectible. And that opens a whole new market for all kinds of things.
Noah Davis: The idea that you can have a collectible commodity that is extraordinarily valuable and also intangible will change the way that people think about investing, the way that people think about exhibition.
It's going to affect every piece of technology potentially that's involved in the contemporary art market apparatus right now.
Jeffrey Brown: No one knows yet who made the winning bid for Beeple, but the NFT market generally has been growing fast, with plenty of high-flying entrepreneurs jumping in.
Jason Bailey: Elon Musk and Mark Cuban are weighing in and starting to buy and collect these things now. And they're all, sort of collectively, seen as visionaries, not just famous people, but visionaries who made gambles early and did well, right?
Jeffrey Brown: Jason Bailey, who writes about art and technology on the site Artnome, says the boom in cryptocurrencies also means a new generation of investors.
Jason Bailey: There's thousands of young people who are tech-savvy enough to get into crypto and are now looking to build a culture. So, those are real buyers. A lot of these people are crypto-millionaires.
Jeffrey Brown: And it's easy. Anybody, even non-millionaires, can go to sites like SuperRare and place bids.
Christiane Paul: I see huge potential for decentralization of the art market, which means, simply, that a larger amount of people has access and perhaps even at a lower price.
Jeffrey Brown: Christiane Paul is curator of new media arts at New York's Whitney Museum. She says both artists and collectors stand to benefit. But she also wants us to see beyond this week's craze.
Christiane Paul: I think we have to make sure that we don't mistake what we're currently seeing sold through NFTs as representative of digital art, because it's a much, much broader field, and there are still aesthetic distinctions to make.
Jeffrey Brown: There are also environmental concerns. NFTs and cryptocurrencies require significant energy to power massive networks of computers.
No one knows where all this is headed, whether it's a speculative bubble or something real.
But for Mike Winkelmann, AKA, Beeple, the benefits to him and others are plenty real for now.
Mike Winkelmann: There's a bunch of digital artists who are suddenly able to make a living through selling NFTs. So this is very much a movement. And I just kind of happened to be sort of one of the more popular people in the space who kind of is the sort of bridge right now between the traditional world and this new digital world.
But I think these worlds are converging very quickly.
Jeffrey Brown: So, when are you going to call yourself an artist?
Mike Winkelmann: Well, we will see after this Christie's auction, maybe after that. Maybe I will change my name badge to artist.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
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