Today, the UK’s first NFT gallery opens its doors: a full-time space dedicated to what believers promise is the future of British art. Based in Shoreditch, in east London (where else?), Quantus Gallery’s white walls are lined with screens displaying non-fungible tokens, digital certificates of ownership that have become a £ 30 billion industry. In lieu of the usual authenticity documents, the deeds to this virtual art is a string of code, stored on the blockchain – a decentralized platform that powers Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
If it all smacks of zeitgeist-chasing millennial madness, that’s partly true, not least because images of cartoon monkeys that you can’t actually touch are now racking up seven-figure sales. This is art for having, not hanging: cultural cachet, rather than real-world decoration.
Still, the traditional industry wants a piece of the action: 278-year-old Sotheby’s is hiring an NFT specialist, while Everydays, a collage of hundreds of screenshots, sold for a record-breaking £ 52 million at Christie’s last year. “A lot of people will say, ‘This is just an absolute fad,’” says James Ryan, one of Quantus’s three co-founders (who also runs Grove Square Galleries, for old-school wall art, in Fitzrovia). “But that really isn’t the case.”
Last year, Damien Hirst launched The Currency, a collection of NFTs corresponding to 10,000 of his spot paintings, which could either be kept in digital form, or traded for a physical piece. Five per cent of buyers opted for the latter. Having grossed £ 14 million in the initial sale, it has earned a further five per cent in resales and is “trading all the time”, says Hirst. “It goes up and down; it’s got value one minute, and not the next. It’s like being in a cult, and I’m the cult leader. “
From 16-year-old crypto investors to fifty-somethings planning their retirement, “everyone’s got the curiosity” when it comes to NFTs, says Ryan Marsh, Quantus’s money man, when I meet him, Ryan and the third co-founder, Josh Sandhu, at a private members’ club in central London. “This is something that the world needs and wants.”