In 2018, Christie’s Gave Away 300 Free NFTs. The Few People Who Didn’t Throw Them Out Are Now Selling Them for Over $10,000

In 2018, alongside colleagues and collaborators, I established the Christie’s Art and Tech Summit, an annual conference focused on exploring emerging technologies and their potential impact on the art world. 

The theme our first year? Blockchain. 

This was still the early days for art NFT marketplaces: SuperRare had been founded only three months prior, Nifty Gateway that same year, and MakersPlace—one of the oldest still active art marketplaces—only a year and a half before.

A couple of months before the summit, self-defined “art-nerd” Jason Bailey approached us and suggested we include a series of NFTs in the goodie-bags that would be distributed to summit attendees—a curious idea that we thought would make for a fun experiment. 

Jason had been working alongside SuperRare to help them identify artists for their marketplace. Amongst them was 18-year-old Robbie Barrat. Together, Jason and SuperRare agreed that Robbie should be the first-ever artist to upload his work onto the platform. Nude Portrait #1 was uploaded on April 5, 2018.

Robbie’s art intrinsically harnessed the power of machine-learning algorithms to create new results. The first series of works he created for SuperRare consisted of seven nude portraits. Perhaps we could distribute one of those? Nude Portrait #7 was to be the one.

Frame no. 24 of Robbie Barrat's Nude Portrait #7. The 300 NFTs given out by Christie's together make up a complete image of the work.

Frame no. 24 of Robbie Barrat’s Nude Portrait #7. The 300 NFTs given out by Christie’s together make up a complete image of the work.

But Robbie didn’t feel comfortable distributing an edition of 300 of the same artwork. Nude Portraits one through six were unique artworks, and making such a large edition for Nude Portrait #7 felt off. So a different idea emerged: the work would be split into 300 separate layers, which, when all overlaid, would create the final portrait. Each of the layers was created into a single NFT (edition 1/1) and distributed to the attendees. 

Giving away digital works in a physical environment required one extra step: we needed to make sure that people could claim their artworks with the minimum possible effort. The solution was to create plastic “gift cards” and insert them in each goodie-bag for our attendees to take home.

Each gift card contained two codes: a crypto-wallet’s public key (think of this as a username) and a private key (think of this as a password) that would need to be scratched off to be revealed. Similar to a lottery ticket, all someone would need to do was enter their public and private keys online, and they would be the proud new owners of a Robbie Barrat NFT.

With everything in place, all that was left to do was announce what had been concocted and urge people to claim their artworks. At one point during a panel discussion that Jason was moderating, he announced the gifts. “Don’t throw away your card,” Jason told attendees.”If you don’t want it, give it to me. I might even give you money for it.”

Only 12 people out of around 300 claimed their free NFTs, and no one took Jason up on his offer.

An image of the 2018 Christie’s Art and Tech Summit. Courtesy Elliot Safra.

An image of the 2018 Christie’s Art and Tech Summit. Courtesy Elliot Safra.

Now, almost three years later, the NFT market has grown enormously and even peeked into the mainstream. 

Robbie Barrat has continued to create artworks. He is now exhibiting in a show at L’Avant Galerie Vossen in Paris as well as in the crypto-art exhibition that my company, AndArt Agency, helped put together at UCCA Beijing, which opens at the end of the month.

From a monetary value perspective, Robbie has sold numerous works for more than $100,000, and one of the 12 claimed NFTs was resold last year for $13,736. There are others on the market for significantly more.

Zack Yanger, who originally wrote about this topic last year in a blog post on the SuperRare website, very aptly named the unclaimed artworks the “Lost Robbies.” As news of the NFT market has proliferated, people have gone back to search for the gift cards that we placed in their goodie bags. So far, Jason Bailey says he knows of four people who found their cards (although none of the four have claimed them online as of yet).

So what happens to the “Lost Robbies”? Unless the gift cards are found, these artworks can never be claimed. They are lost in an “internet museum”—accessible for all to view, but for no one to own. Perhaps this is an apt idea during this “NFT gold-rush.” If you remove all monetary value from the art, can it still retain its importance?

Elliot Safra is a partner at AndArt Agency, a creative agency focused on unleashing synergies between global brands and the art world. He started his NFT art collection in 2018.

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Rosie Lee Tompkins’s Quilts Gave Critic Roberta Smith a ‘New Standard’ to Measure Contemporary Art. What Happens to Her Legacy Now?

Improvisational quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins was virtually unknown by the general public during her lifetime—an anonymity she not only welcomed, but carefully cultivated. Now, with two new Bay Area shows at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, the virtuosic talent likely has more work on view at one time than ever before. 

There’s just one catch—and it’s one that makes growing the public’s understanding of Tompkins’s work, not to mention her market, a unique challenge. The artist had a single primary patron who assembled a large collection of her work—and donated it en masse to one museum. How do you grow a legacy, and a collector base, when an oeuvre is so centralized?

Tompkins, whose real name was Effie Mae Howard (the pseudonym was a privacy safeguard), was born in 1936 to a many-membered sharecropping family in southeastern Arkansas. Though she learned to quilt at an early age, it wasn’t until her mid-40s, working as a nurse in the Northern California town of Richmond, that she embraced the craft as more than a hobby.  

She would, for the next 25-plus years until her death in 2006, churn out hundreds of quilts, many intricate enough in their control of color and jazzy sense of composition to draw comparisons to the great abstractionists of the modern era.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, <i>Untitled</i> (c. 2002). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (c. 2002). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

“Tompkins’s work, I came to realize, was one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments, giving quilt-making a radical new articulation and emotional urgency,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith recently wrote of her experience seeing Tompkins’s work for the first time in 1997. “I felt I had been given a new standard against which to measure contemporary art.”

This snippet was one of many glowing passages in Smith’s 4,300-word review of Tompkins’s “triumphal retrospective” currently installed at BAMPFA. (The museum is currently closed due to California’s public-health protocols; it’s expected to reopen in the spring.) The article is one of the most rapturous pieces of criticism you may ever read. And she’s not the only one to consider Tompkins in such rarified air.

The demand for Tompkins’s work is as great as it’s ever been, but the supply is all but non-existent. That’s because her legacy grew late and fast; by the time her name was known by a larger audience, the majority of her work had been scooped up by a single enthusiastic collector named Eli Leon. He bought the works directly from Tompkins for what some estimate may have been a few thousand dollars each. 

So enthralled with Tompkins’s work was the collector that he asked for as much as $50,000 per piece from anyone who wanted to buy one from him—a whopping figure for an artist who was, at the time, a relatively unknown quantity. Because of this, Leon sold few. Before passing away in 2018, he arranged for his collection of quilts—including some 500 pieces by Tompkins—to be bequeathed to BAMPFA

Rosie Lee Tompkins, <i>Untitled</i> (date unknown). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (date unknown). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Today, very few of the artist’s pieces are in private hands, and none have ever appeared at auction, according to Midnight Publishing Group’s Price Database. They’ve only appeared in galleries a handful of times—which is what makes the current show of Tompkins’s work at Anthony Meier in San Francisco so noteworthy.

Eleven Tompkins quilts make up the exhibition, which Meier acquired directly from Tompkins’s family. (Meier says he doesn’t know how many more are out there, but he doubts there are any major untapped troves.) The price for each one hovers around the mid-to-high five-figure mark, the gallerist tells Midnight Publishing Group News, making Leon’s once-astronomical asks now seem reasonable. 

The show hasn’t sold out yet, but Meier says interest is coming from a much broader range of people than the gallery typically attracts. 

“If you combine the kind of praise that she has been accorded by people like Roberta Smith, with the incredibly limited supply and the kind of self-evident beauty of the work—it’s got three huge things going through it,” says Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA’s longtime director and chief curator who organized the show. (Rinder retired in 2019.) “I’ve never been involved in the art market, thank goodness, but my gut feeling is that they’re worth a lot of money.” 

Because of that, Rinder says, the museum’s one-of-a-kind collection comes with a great deal of responsibility—a responsibility to shepherd Tompkins’s legacy, to both protect her life’s work and share it with as many people as possible. (Tompkins does not have a formal estate, as many late artists do.) What’s the prudent way to proceed?

Installation view of "Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective" at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2020-21. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Installation view of “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2020-21. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

This is a very, very important question for the museum right now,” the former director explains.

Rinder sees two possible directions in which the institution could go. One would be to hold onto all of Tompkins’s pieces and establish a research center dedicated to the artist, allowing scholars the opportunity to study the collection as a whole body of work even if it means limiting the public’s access to it. The other would be to strategically disperse the collection to other museums—be it through sale, long-term loan, or gift—in an effort to make it widely accessible, if decentralized. 

When asked which direction he would take, were he not retired, Rinder says this is an instance where you can “have your cake and eat it too.” 

“There are so many [of Tompkins’s artworks in the collection] that you could keep a core group and send the others out into the world. That way you’d be able to accomplish both things,” he says. “That’s what I would do.”

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