The British artist Damien Hirst, best known for putting a shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has gotten on the NFT bandwagon.
NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, rely on blockchain technology to designate an official copy of a piece of digital media that would otherwise be cheap or free. Mr. Hirst is selling a collection of 10,000 NFTs, each of which corresponds to a physical dot painting, for $2,000 each. A year from now, the collectors of the series, called “The Currency,” will have to decide whether to keep the NFT or the painting; whichever one they don’t choose will be destroyed.
Is it better to keep the NFT or the physical artwork? Which will be the more valuable investment? It’s hard to know. Certain NFTs are fetching large sums of money, but not all of them are. As with any new art form, what happens over the next few years is hard to predict. And anyone investing in NFTs with an eye on earning investment-like returns needs to understand the risks.
“It’s such new territory,” Diana Wierbicki, a partner and the global head of art law at Withersworldwide. “It can go up; it can go down. It’s like any type of contemporary art: The values aren’t fixed, so you’re taking on a risk.”
What an NFT can be varies widely. Beeple, the digital artist whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, made headlines when an NFT he created called “Everydays — the First 5,000 Days” sold for $69 million at a Christie’s online auction in March. The NFT was a collection of 5,000 images he had already posted online, beginning in 2007.
Among the most widely known NFTs is the National Basketball Association’s Top Shot NFTs — essentially an NFT of a single highlight or multiple ones. Their prices range widely. A pack of NFTs can sell for around $20, while an NFT of LeBron James doing a reverse dunk as a tribute to a famous dunk by Kobe Bryant, who died in 2020, sold for $387,000. And it wasn’t even the only one. (It was No. 3 of 59 in an NFT series of the dunk.)
“NFTs are an asset class like fine art,” said Alex Tapscott, managing director of Ninepoint Partners’ Digital Asset Group. “They’re newer, so they’re riskier, but ultimately they’re still an asset. People buy them with the expectation that they can sell them for more.”
There are certainly people who are bullish on the tokens.
Chris Ciobanica, a cryptocurrency investor better known as Silver Surfer, began buying NFTs last summer. He said he had amassed over $10 million worth of these digital images, most of them linked to physical artworks. (His wealth from crypto investments is many times that amount, said Mr. Ciobanica, a former tech system administrator, but he declined to be more specific.)
“I don’t see NFTs as collectibles like baseball cards,” he said. “I see them as these rare digital artworks. They’re just a different form from what you’d see in traditional art.”
He has collected works by the artist known as Pak, whose NFT artwork has been auctioned by Sotheby’s. One work of a gray pixel sold for $1.35 million. Mr. Ciobanica said he paid $20,000 to $40,000 for NFTs by Pak last year but more recently paid around $1 million for one.
While his collection has appreciated, he said, he became interested in NFTs as an escape from the volatility of cryptocurrency prices. He owns or mines Bitcoin, Ether and Dogecoin.
“I’d never collected traditional art,” he said. “This was very new to me. I just liked the community and the artists. I’d collect these pieces and make friendships with all of these artists.”
Evan Beard, who runs the art services group as head of specialty segments at Bank of America Private Bank, said he divided NFT buyers into four categories.
There is the crypto diversifier, who has bought cryptocurrencies for years and sees NFTs as another form of currency; the digital native, who is used to paying real dollars for virtual stuff in online games; the enterprising collector, who is also financially driven but is attuned to art history and sees NFTs as the beginning of something new; and the segment specialist, who is focused on the content, be it a piece of art or a LeBron James dunk.
“If auction houses and museums are part of this, NFT collecting has the potential to be really big,” Mr. Beard said. “It also has the potential to be like Beanie Babies, a fun folly, and we’ll look back and say, ‘Can you believe we bought these digital tokens?’”
Jeff Marsilio, who led the introduction of NBA Top Shot, started a new NFT platform, Nifty’s, with the release of 92,000 NFTs related to the film “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which stars Mr. James. The majority of the NFTs were free in exchange for the recipients’ doing certain promotional things online. Those who bought the NFTs were charged $2.99 apiece.
The Nifty’s platform is also responsible for managing the release of Mr. Hirst’s “The Currency,” and the expectation is that these NFTs will appreciate over time like many of Mr. Hirst’s other works.
“The platform is somewhat agnostic to the value of NFTs or their investment potential,” Mr. Marsilio said. “It’s a place to keep your collections and discover new NFTs. It’s also a place to engage in commerce to buy and sell NFTs.”
Like Mr. Hirst’s work, some NFTs are testing the connection between the virtual and the physical worlds. Cult Wines, a company that advises on fine wine investments, is auctioning off a barrel of Château Angélus via an NFT. The highest bidder will get the barrel — equivalent to about 300 regular-size bottles of wine and worth at least $100,000 — but also decide what size bottles to put the wine in; have a virtual tasting with the estate’s chief executive, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal; and participate in next year’s wine harvest.
But because of the underlying blockchain technology, the company sees NFTs linked to French wine as something that can provide security to buyers of Bordeaux futures, who buy through the en primeur system, which collects money now for wine that won’t be bottled and delivered for several years.
Bordeaux chateaus that sell wine futures as nonphysical assets have always been open to fraudulent activities, said Tom Gearing, chief executive and co-founder of Cult Wines.
“If a company says, ‘I have a bottle of wine I’m going to sell you in two years,’ but if that company goes bust, you can lose that wine,” he said. “If an NFT can identify the owner of a barrel that is going to be delivered at a future time, this could open up the idea of en primeur buying to a whole new audience.”
Cameron Smith, director at Mayfair Private Office, which invests in real estate around London, has been bidding on the wine NFT. The auction of the NFT linked to a barrel of wine opens up the buying experience to more people, Mr. Smith said.
“They’ve also created something with the NFT to bring buying wine futures into the 21st century,” he said.
One issue that has not caught up with the technology is how NFTs will be taxed. Cryptocurrency is taxed at the capital gains rate, and many experts say they believe that NFTs will be considered collectibles, which are taxed at a 28 percent rate. But the tax issue gets more complicated because many NFTs are bought using cryptocurrency. So any transaction would be considered a realization of the gains in that cryptocurrency.
“It’s a perfect example of where the law hasn’t caught up with the technology,” said Jere Doyle, senior vice president at BNY Mellon Wealth Management. “Collectible in code sections says any work of art, rug or antique, metal or antique, or any other tangible personal property. Would any work of art be tangible or digital? Does tangible modify a work of art? We don’t know.”
One thing is certain, Mr. Doyle said: If NFTs appreciate in value, the owner will have to pay tax on that.