Internet history under the hammer: Sir Tim Berners-Lee's source code for the World Wide Web was auctioned off as an NFT, as the market for digital art expands.
Tim Berners-Lee's source code for the World Wide Web sold Wednesday for $5.4 million (€4.5 million) in the form of an NFT, or non-fungible token, after the program had been on sale for a week at Sotheby's in New York. It included the original file with time stamp and signature, along with an animated visualization of the source code, a digital poster with the complete code and an essay by the British computer scientist about the code.
On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for an information management system while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, paving the way for the invention of the World Wide Web.
Decades later, the internet pioneer felt it was logical to sell his code as an NFT, as quoted on Sotheby's website: "NFTs, be they artworks or a digital artifact like this, are the latest playful creations in this realm, and the most appropriate means of ownership that exists. They are the ideal way to package the origins behind the web."
Historical artifacts like the source code of the World Wide Web are of great value to digital natives, and are one of a series of spectacular sales of 20th-century pioneering technical products held by major auction houses like Sotheby's.
Not so long ago, auction houses only sold tangible objects — for instance oil paintings. Today, art lovers can also bid on non-fungible tokens, NFTs for short — digital certificates that cannot be changed. You can think of them as virtual originals.
NFTs are attached to the digital object and identify its authorship, and cannot be manipulated or forged. With this new offer, digital art has undoubtedly found its place on the established art market and is set to revolutionize it.
In March, Christie's sold Everydays: The First 5000 Days by digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, for $69 million (€58 million). In one fell swoop, it made him the most expensive artist in the digital sphere, and it was the third-highest auction price ever for a work by a living artist.
Non-fungible tokens have great potential — every bit of information about transfers and owners, whether private individuals or museums, is recorded on them, giving artists more influence on the sale or resale of their artworks. They are like a kind of "value register," according to art expert Georg Bak.
"This is the initial phase, and there are still some problems to be solved. But this is not a hype that will pass; this will fundamentally change the art market, and maybe beyond," Bak told DW.
Currently, a parallel process is underway, with market platforms like Open Sea generating more and more sales and negotiating what is of value.
Investors, collectors or artists drive the market, a fact major auction houses have recognized, so they have begun to offer interesting artifacts. NFTs are even on sale on eBay.
Sotheby's, for one, feels electrified by the new possibilities. "At Sotheby's, we see NFT as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a bridge from the digital world to the institutional auction world," said Cassandra Hatton, global head of science and popular culture at Sotheby's.
"The NFT technology is one of the greatest innovations in the market we have seen in some time, the possibilities are endless and the story about how it will develop is only just at the beginning," she told DW.
"To put it all into context, the source code to the web is a digital artifact that has existed since 1990, but until NFTs it would not have been something that we could ever have sold."
Major auction houses sell milestones in digital art as well as digital historical artifacts — sometimes rolled into one.
CryptoPunks, by US cryptoart entrepreneur duo Larva Labs, was the first NFT to hit the market in 2017 — 10,000 pixelated punks wearing 1980s looks. The original was released as an NFT, which means all changes of ownership can be tracked.
Nine of the original CryptoPunks were auctioned at Christie's in May for just under $17 million.
Sotheby's recently focused on a mix of historical cryptoart including works by Larva Labs and Kevin McCoy, generative art stars like Anna Ridler, and digital artists including Mario Klingemann and Addie Wagenknecht.
"The whole cultural history of the internet, net culture and generative art will be auctioned off," said Georg Bak. "Both museums and traditional collectors now take it seriously," he added — even if they are still adjusting with regard to the many new artists and digital objects.
The main problem with digital art used to be that it was too easy to reproduce and often coupled with potential hardware problems, Bak said.
People were also concerned that the technology might soon become obsolete. "That was a deterrent for ordinary collectors for a long time," he added.
In the case of the NFT, only one digital file is transferred, and that is the original. There are no packaging and shipping costs, no customs fees.
It caught the art market off guard, Bak said, and triggered a "new phase of reflection."
NFT auctions are attracting a new breed of collectors to established auction houses, which now accept cryptocurrency payments.
At the same time, leading auction houses are getting involved in the formation of a new art canon in the digital realm and are familiarizing regular collectors with digital art.
It's a win-win situation for both sides, said Bak. "Now collectors are negotiating digital culture." It's exciting for the artists and the business community, too. New forms to present art are emerging, Bak said, "including many hybrid forms."
The sky's the limit for imaginative forms of representation that can be devised for digital art, as are the sums of money passing hands for NFT art, and it's only just beginning — which in large parts is thanks to Berners-Lee's original invention back in 1989.
This article has been translated from German and updated.