British art superstar Damien Hirst’s first NFT project The Currency just hit a critical deadline. Collectors have now officially weighed in as to whether they’ll keep the physical paintings that came with their NFTs, or burn them to save the digital artifacts.
The margin was narrow, but the paintings won. Exactly 5,149 collectors opted to keep their IRL artworks, and 4,851 chose the NFTs. Hirst himself held 1,000 works from the collection, and announced on Twitter that he’d keep the NFTs to demonstrate his confidence in the project.
That means he chose to incinerate 1,000 of his own one-of-a-kind artworks.
The Currency, which went live last July, launching 10,000 of Hirst’s dot paintings stored in a secure UK vault on the eco-friendly Palm blockchain in partnership with online art firm HENI.
Hirst’s iconic dot series hit the art market in 1986, though the New York Times pointed out in January that his assistants have historically done the manual labor of actually making them.
All 10,000 works of enamel paint on handmade paper hail from 2016, when “Hirst dispensed the rules for his Colour Space paintings, and allowed the work to become more organic,” HENI says. “The Currency evolved from this exploration, with the spots appearing like particles or atoms.” Each is titled, stamped, and signed, with a watermark, microdot, and hologram of Hirst.
Titles stem from machine learning applied to the artist’s favorite song lyrics. Machine learning also identified key features like dot density, paint texture, and title length, ranking each work in terms of respective rarity. Though no exact hue appears twice in the same painting, they worked out color rarity by mapping 10,000 RGB values and dividing them into seven groups.
You can search for different types of rarities in the collection’s online public gallery. Fun fact: only 1.22% of works from the series have profanity in their title.
Keeping with the collectors’ caveat, all discarded physical works will now be burned starting September 9 as part of a corresponding gallery show called The Currency at Newport Street Gallery in London. The remainder will blaze during Frieze art fair in October.
Collectors who chose the physical paintings have, as such, also sacrificed their NFTs. Here, the term “burn” transcends the physical and digital. “Burning” cryptocurrencies and NFTs means sending them to a locked wallet that can only receive. People burn crypto for the same reason Hirst might burn his paintings or a fashion house might torch their merchandise.
Hirst first wanted to be a painter, but made his name and fortune as a sculptor and conceptual artist–most famously preserving sharks in formaldehyde, but also arranging calf heads, flies, and bug zappers to comment on the paradoxically awe-inspiring horrors of mortality. However, as NYT wrote, Hirst has surrendered animals and made the market itself his medium.
NFTs proved a perfect fit for that practice, at their height. According to NYT, The Currency made about $18 million from the initial sale, and continually collects 5% of all resales.
Between July 30 and August 31, 2021, the project’s first month live, it generated 2,036 sales totalling $47.9 million. “It’s trading all the time: It goes up and down, it’s got value one minute, and not the next,” Hirst told NYT. “It’s like being in a cult, and I’m the cult leader.”
Crypto winter cropped up in May, and they also suffered the bear market. “Last month just 170 sales took place, bringing in a total of $1.4 million,” Artnet wrote the day before voting closed.
At this point, the project has generated $89 million. Although the current average of $7,500 is a far cry from the project’s lifetime average around $21,000, the physical works themselves are already fetching $26,000 at the likes of Phillips London last January, Artnet added.
They later combed the project’s Discord and found that collectors felt NFTs were “much faster and easier to sell” while serving to sustain the project’s hype. Cons apparently included “nobody knows if nfts are a fad” and “nft and crypto market is hugely volatile.”
Other collectors said the physical prints “look even better in person” while providing “safe store of wealth that will likely go up in value.” On the other hand, physical artwork requires insurance—though with the state of cryptocrime, maybe NFTs should too—and of course cashing out risks FOMO, should a bull market for crypto return.
Until the fires start, Hirst’s apparently thrashing about his studio trying to come to terms with the destruction ahead. “Eeeeeek!” he concluded the Twitter thread announcing collectors’ results. “I still don’t know what I’m doing.”
But Hirst’s creations have already met the same fate as burnt crypto, hidden indefinitely under lock and key. In the aughts, Hirst cast an ancient skull in diamond-crusted platinum and called it For the Love of God, an earlier exploration into these 1:1 ideas of value.
He sold it for $100 million to a consortium of owners including himself and his gallery, White Cube. “It now languishes in storage in Hatton Garden, London’s jewelry district,” Hirst said in the NYT piece. At least with The Currency, Hirst’s burnt paintings can know freedom–even if his Twitter fans feel the paintings are better off in their hands.