The $20 million Degas sculpture wasn’t there. It only seemed to be.
A hologram of the bronze statue of a ballet dancer rotated slowly inside a storefront on Geary Street on Wednesday as art lovers gazed at it in wonder. Christie’s, the historic auction house, beamed the ultra-realistic hologram to San Francisco from its New York headquarters for a gallery party to showcase items from its upcoming May auction.
It is believed to be the first great work of art to ever be “holoported” from another location.
Welcome to the digital world, Edgar Degas.
The hologram is part of a digital art strategy that allowed Christie’s to put on a hybrid, live and on-screen auction watched by 1.2 million people in 126 countries in November. Last year Christie’s also set the record for the most lucrative sale price of a non-fungible token, the unique digital assets known as NFTs, at $69.3 million.
Christie’s believes NFTs, other digital art and the online communities known as the metasphere are emerging from “a fog of doubt” and are about to break through to mainstream appeal. Bringing great artworks into the digital world where people can connect with them is one way to do that.
NFT artwork has found a steady market of mostly male millennials who are involved in the cryptocurrency industry. In fact, NFTs, which are founded on blockchain technology like cryptocurrency, have become in many ways the visual representation of blockchain. They have practical applications, such as authenticating contracts. Sports fans and other collectors of memorabilia are collecting digital souvenirs of their favorite teams and stars.
But fine art may be an on-ramp for the mainstream, Christie’s and others believe. Validation from the art world adds a gravitas and permanence that cryptocurrency’s turbulence needs. An art world of museums and galleries hurt by COVID can use the digital boost of capital and interest, as well.
“People are eager to experience art in a new way,” said Ellanor Notides, Christie’s West Coast chairman.
The hologram was the most-discussed artwork at a packed gallery party in Christie’s San Francisco headquarters. Partygoers went downstairs and lined up on the chilly sidewalk to view the apparition in the storefront. The refrigerator-sized hardware used to project the hologram didn’t fit in the freight elevator to take it up to the gallery.
Upstairs were paintings by world-famous artists — Picasso, Norman Rockwell and Wayne Thiebaud — not to mention free booze and hors d’oeuvres. But what people most wanted to see was the hologram of the 1880 sculpture “La Petite Danseuse.” Christie’s is auctioning off the statue in May, but it is too fragile to be shipped to art capitals for potential buyers to see. The holographic version is indestructible.
Proto, the Los Angeles company that makes the $65,000 hardware that projects the hologram, said the Degas statue is the first great work of art to ever be projected this way.
“So many people were interested in seeing the Proto piece,” said Notides, the host of the party. “They were interested in the tech of the piece. They were asking, ‘Is it really there?’ ‘Is it an NFT?’”
The hologram is not an NFT. However, an architecture-related NFT estimated at $1 million to $2 million is being auctioned off in the same show as the Degas sculpture. Last year Christie’s auctioned off $150 million in NFTs, including one that made headlines.
In March of 2021, Christie’s auctioned off the NFT titled “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” by the artist known as Beeple for a then-record $69.3 million. The sale set a high water mark for the NFT art market. But it also raised questions about eye-popping price tags and the actual value of NFTs.
Noah Davis, Christie’s head of digital sales, helped to guide the record Beeple auction. Davis said the doubts are real, but things are changing. “There’s a tremendous amount of scams out there. There are very many bad actors exploiting various people, and it’s not for the faint of heart. So we need to kind of create a safe space, a transition into this new world for people where they can feel comfortable, and they don’t feel like they’re at risk.”
That’s where the Degas hologram comes in. The combination of traditional art and new kinds of technology is providing a transition in which Christie’s and others believe NFTs will reach more people.
“Peppering in virtual experiences to your lived experiences is probably the path to a more durable, sticky metaverse,” Davis said, citing the name often used for digital communities.
The San Francisco company MakersPlace “minted” (authenticated with unique blockchain computer code) the $69.3 million Beeple artwork, and introduced the artist to Christie’s. MakersPlace CEO Craig Palmer said his company’s hosting of Leonardo da Vinci NFT hologram and Christie’s Degas hologram represent a “digital art crossover into the world of traditional art, and blurring of the two.”
Another way for NFTs to break through to a mainstream audience will be via well-known artists and investors, Davis said, citing the recent meteoric rise of The Moonbirds collection of NFTs involving investors Kevin Rose and Gary Vaynerchuk. “Moonbirds didn’t randomly appear and become the most popular project in the NFT space,” Davis said. The well-known names involved did for Moonbirds what Christie’s did for the Beeple piece: Added the reassurance of legitimacy.
That reassurance may be a process, even for the tech-savvy.
Jeremy Fortes, a digital artist who works with artificial intelligence, came to the Christie’s gallery party in an LED-studded suit powered by a battery pack and run with a remote control. He’s not sold on the value of NFTs.
“I’m just skeptical about the whole crypto market quite honestly,” Fortes said. But the hologram was another matter. “I loved it. When you marry the physical world with the digital world like that, that transports people and moves their heart.”