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Expert Analysis
May 3, 2024

Crypto Artists Invest in Themselves

The trend of crypto artists buying back their own NFTs
Credit: Justin Aversano, Knight of Staffs, 2022.
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Crypto Artists Invest in Themselves

The digital age, particularly the emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), has catalyzed a significant transformation in the art world, fundamentally altering the dynamics of art creation, ownership, and distribution. At the heart of this transformation lies the concept of creator royalties, a feature of NFTs that gives artists a percentage of sales whenever their digital artworks are resold. This system of royalties represented a seismic shift from traditional art markets, where artists typically benefit only from the initial sale of their work. Selling digital art as NFTs therefore empowers creators with ongoing financial returns, fostering a more sustainable economic model for artists. 

This innovative approach has not only provided artists with a new revenue stream. It has also enhanced the value of digital art, elevating it to a status comparable to traditional art forms. In essence, NFTs have democratized the art market, breaking down barriers to entry and allowing a broader range of artists to participate and thrive in the digital economy. This has led to an unprecedented explosion of creativity and diversity in the art world, as artists are now incentivized to continually innovate and engage with their communities. 

But now, amidst this technological revolution, some artists are increasingly charting a different course: buying back their own NFTs. As the automatic creator royalties disappear from big platforms like OpenSea, artists like Justin Aversano, Coldie, and Roope Rainisto are taking matters into their own hands.

These artists are transforming from passive beneficiaries of their creations into active custodians and investors of their digital portfolios.

This movement is more than a market trend. It is a strategic evolution in the way artists interact with their creations. It signifies a deeper understanding of their work’s value and a commitment to maintaining control over their artistic legacy.

Justin Aversano's journey with his Smoke and Mirrors series offers a vivid example of this. In this series, Aversano captured the essence of 78 diverse subjects — artists, astrologers, psychics, tarot readers, and mystics from across the globe — each embodying a unique tarot card. This collection, a tribute to the enchanting world of magic and mysticism, was initially released with each NFT paired with its physical twin. Reflecting on this, Aversano shares, “Initially, my intent was to release the entirety of the collection into the world, ensuring each piece found its place within the broader artistic ecosystem. This, I believed, was the most genuine and honorable way to engage with the community and the art itself.” 

However, the shifting dynamics of the NFT market, particularly the transition of platforms like OpenSea to optional creator earnings, necessitated a re-evaluation of his strategy. Aversano elucidates, “With the decline of honored royalties, the sustainable revenue stream we artists had come to rely on started to fade. This realization sparked a pivotal shift in my approach. I began to reclaim my artworks to have a more substantial stake in my creations. In doing so, I am not only affirming my belief in my work, but also ensuring that I can benefit fully from its future potential, rather than settling for a fraction of its worth.” 

Aversano began to buy back his creations, recognizing the long-term value and the importance of owning a complete set. His goal transcends mere ownership; he envisages his collection of Smoke and Mirrors someday being displayed alongside iconic works like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. This vision is not just about financial gain, but is deeply rooted in his belief in the cultural significance of his work.

Coldie, Decentral Eyes - Vitalik Buterin - Variant 01, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Similarly, Coldie has adopted a strategy of reclaiming key works and withholding select editions from sale. This approach is a calculated investment in the longevity and value of his artistic output. Coldie’s actions highlight a growing sentiment among digital artists: a belief in the intrinsic worth of their creations and a desire to ensure their long-term relevance and appreciation. 

Delving into his experience, Coldie recounts a pivotal moment that underscores this philosophy. “Back in 2019, I sold my genesis 1/1 piece, Vitalik Buterin - Decentral Eyes - Variant 01, to VK Crypto, an early patron in the crypto art scene, for a modest sum of 1.5 ETH, equivalent to $190 at the time,” he begins. “Fast forward two years, VK unexpectedly put up for sale his entire collection of early digital art masterpieces, including my work. Serendipitously, just a week prior, I had sold a significant artwork by Hackatao, leaving me with a substantial amount of Ethereum at my disposal when this opportunity arose.” 

Seizing this moment, Coldie reflects on his longstanding practice of reinvesting in the digital art community. “Traditionally, I’ve channeled about 30% of my art sales back into purchasing works from other artists. But this was a unique moment — a chance to reclaim a piece that was not just any artwork, but my own, and one that held immense personal and artistic significance to me. Despite the price of 17.5 ETH, around $30,675, being over 150 times its original selling price, it represented a unique opportunity. To me, as both a creator and a collector deeply embedded in the early crypto art movement, the value was undeniable. I would have pursued this piece fervently, regardless of its creator. But the fact that it was my creation made the investment even more meaningful.” 

Coldie's story culminates in a reflection on the journey and the future. “Who better to invest in than myself, knowing my commitment to producing exceptional art for life? This is a quality that discerning collectors seek in artists. While I don’t create art solely to display it in my personal gallery, for now, this piece serves as a powerful reminder of the path I’ve traversed in the crypto art movement.”

His tale encapsulates the ethos of contemporary digital artists: investing in oneself is not just a financial decision, but a testament to one’s dedication to their craft and belief in their artistic journey.

Over the years, Coldie has also strategically collected other works of his that have emerged on the market, like Trust Your Intuition, Warren Buffett - Decentral Eyes - Variant 05, and Alotta Money - Decentral Eyes. He shares, “I often give others a fair chance to collect by letting these works sit for a while. However, as a collector and with an eye on the future, especially in terms of providing for my family, these acquisitions are more than just buying back art. They are an act of personal digital archiving and lineage collecting.” With a light-hearted touch, he adds, “I like to think about how my future generations will look back at Great-Grandpa Coldie's contributions.” This approach reflects a blend of personal investment and a thoughtful consideration for his artistic legacy. 

Roope Rainisto, Cocktail No. 5, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

For Roope Rainisto, reclaiming ownership of his own artwork is driven by a multifaceted rationale, yet it also fundamentally stems from a core belief in the value of his creations. “At times, my purchases are strategic, aimed at supporting the floor price of a collection, particularly in a year like 2023, marked by well-known market struggles,” he says. “In other instances, my motivation is more personal, like acquiring pieces that hold special meaning to me — pieces I desire to include in my personal collection.” 

Yet beyond these immediate reasons lies a deeper conviction in the future potential of his work. Rainisto elaborates, “To invest in one’s own art is not merely a statement; it's a testament to a belief in its long-term investment potential. It’s akin to a CEO investing in their company, putting their own money on the line."

"This investment signifies more than just financial commitment; it's about having skin in the game, about being rewarded for efforts that enhance the company’s value.”

In a conversation with another artist who would like to stay anonymous, they affirm that belief in oneself emerges as the cornerstone of buying back artworks. Even in scenarios where artists do not directly repurchase their pieces but bid on their own work, it represents a nuanced strategy to garner attention. “Engaging in bidding, rather than outright shilling, is a subtler way of drawing eyes to one's art. It circumvents the need for overt self-promotion. Instead, you can share your genuine enthusiasm about a piece you're bidding on, fostering a more organic interest,” the artist explains. This approach, however, does come with its own set of expectations and readiness. In the personal experience of this artist: “When I decided to bid on two of my pieces, I was fully prepared for the possibility of winning them back. It shows that I’m proud of my work, and it was reflective of my commitment to and conviction of my art.” In that regard, it is not just about raising the artist’s profile; it is a testament to an artist's confidence in their work and its value in the market. 

Richard Chappelow, Wildfire X, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

There are also several artists who are buying back their own works in order to keep it for themselves and not sell again later on. Richard Chappelow for example, has bought back works across ETH, SOL, and XTZ, and will continue to do so in the future. “My journey of buying back my works is rooted in a deep sense of ownership,” he explains. “For me, minting is about establishing provenance and crafting an artistic timeline on the blockchain, while listing is about earning a living through art.” His strategy involves selective reacquisition and vaulting of his works. “There are times when I repurchase pieces from certain periods, especially when I don't have many from that time, or simply because I'm particularly attached to a piece,” Chappelow shares. 

One notable example he cites is his Wildfire collection, a series of ten pieces he minted with no intention of selling. “My aim was to secure these works on the blockchain and then lock them away. I value what I create and aim to retain a significant portion of my output.”

This represents another approach in how the blockchain is utilized by artists — not just as a marketplace, but as a digital archive.

For artists like Chappelow, it’s about more than just a financial transaction; it’s a commitment to preserving their artistic legacy in its digital form.

While for some like Chappelow, it's about preserving a body of work, for others, it may simply be about securing a particular piece that holds special meaning. This diversity in motivation and strategy highlights the multifaceted nature of artists' relationships with their creations in the digital age. Eleven’s experience in the digital art market adds a layer to the narrative of artists reclaiming their creations: her decision to buy back a piece from her SuperRare genesis collection was driven by personal attachment. “There was a piece from my SR genesis collection that suddenly appeared on the market,” she explains. “It held deep personal significance for me, not just as a reflection of my art style, but as a genesis of my journey in the digital art world. I felt it didn’t deserve to be listed.” 

Eleven, And Now That We Are Strangers, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

But besides that, this acquisition wasn't just about reclaiming a digital asset; it was also about preserving a piece of her artistic evolution, just like Chappelow. “This particular work marked a new chapter in my art style, and I wanted it to be safeguarded, preferably in someone’s vault,” she reflects. Eleven’s approach to owning her art also extends beyond the digital realm. “I have a significant number of my works in physical form, as well. Owning your creations shows a level of conviction in your artistry, a belief in the value of your work,” she adds, and therefore endorses what other artists have been saying. 

While she doesn’t plan to resell this particular genesis piece, Eleven is considering ways to reallocate other works she’s reclaimed. “These could include using them for bidder’s editions or as exclusive airdrops for my collectors,” she says. Her strategy underscores a thoughtful approach to managing her portfolio, blending personal attachment with creative engagement strategies for her community of collectors. This highlights the multifaceted nature of artists in the NFT space, where personal artistic expression coexists with community engagement and market dynamics. 

Both Thomas Art and Dolce Paganne are also embracing the trend of reclaiming their creations, each driven by motivations that resonate with their own artistic evolution, much like Eleven and partly Chappelow. Thomas' pursuit to repurchase one of his early works, a geometric black-and-white piece, is an example of an artist wanting to reconnect with their own roots. “This piece marks the beginning of my art career, a time when I was rediscovering my passion for geometric black-and-white art,” he explains. “I've been trying to get it back, but it’s proving difficult to reach the current owner. This piece feels inherently mine, and I don’t plan to sell it again. It’s a symbol of where everything started, a reminder of my artistic journey.” 

Similarly to one of Eleven’s reasons, Dolce Paganne's approach to buying back her own work is influenced by a desire to maintain a personal connection with her collectors and supporters. “I’ve repurchased some of my editions from the secondary market,” she shares. “Initially, I didn’t reserve enough copies during the primary drop, and later, I wanted them for gifting and giveaways to my bidders and collectors of 1/1 pieces.” This action reflects a thoughtful engagement with her community, ensuring she has the means to appreciate and reward those who have supported her throughout.

Together, the experiences of Thomas Art, Dolce Paganne, and Eleven underscore a shared sentiment among digital artists: a deep connection to their creations that transcends mere ownership. Whether it's returning to one's roots, as with Thomas, or fostering relationships with the artist community, as with Paganne, these artists exemplify a holistic approach to their craft, viewing their works not just as products, but as integral parts of their personal and professional narrative. 

Incidentally, the concept of self-investment is not without historical precedent. During the Renaissance, artists like Albrecht Dürer kept a portion of his prints to control their circulation and value. This ensured that he maintained a stake in his work's future appreciation.

Today’s digital artists are echoing these past practices, applying them within the modern marketplace of NFTs. 

The implications of this new trend are significant. By buying back their NFTs, artists are gaining more control over their work's distribution and valuation. This empowers them with financial stability and predictability, countering the inherent volatility of the NFT market. Moreover, this direction is reshaping the relationship between artists and the digital art marketplace. In the past, the market dynamics often dictated the value and distribution of art. Now, artists are becoming more involved in these aspects, actively shaping the narrative around their creations. This involvement is not just a financial decision; it is a statement of intent, a declaration of the artist’s role not just as a creator, but as a curator and guardian of their own legacy. 

The personal narratives of artists like Aversano and Coldie reveal a deep commitment to their craft and a willingness to challenge the status quo. Aversano's ambitious vision of his collection being showcased in prestigious institutions reflects a broader ambition to elevate the status of digital art. Coldie's thoughtful approach to managing his portfolio underscores a strategic mindset that is increasingly prevalent among digital artists.

Justin Aversano, Twin Flames #93, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Looking to the future, this trend could redefine the NFT ecosystem. As artists take a more active role in managing their portfolios, we might see a shift towards more artist-centric models of distribution and valuation. This change could lead to a more balanced and equitable art market, where the creators have greater say in how their art is perceived and valued. 

However, this movement is not without challenges. The NFT market is still nascent and evolving, and the implications of artists buying back their works are yet to be fully understood. Issues around market manipulation, accessibility, and the democratization of art remain pertinent.

As artists navigate this complex landscape, they must balance their personal ambitions with the broader implications for the art community and market dynamics. 

In conclusion, the trend of artists buying back their own NFTs marks an interesting change in the digital art world. It reflects a growing awareness among artists of their value and potential in a rapidly evolving market. This movement is not just about financial gain; it’s about artists taking control of their destiny, preserving their legacy, and ensuring that their vision for their work is realized. As this tendency continues, it may herald a new era in the NFT space where artists are not only creators, but also savvy investors and custodians of their own legacies. In this digital renaissance, artists are reclaiming their artistry, investing in themselves, and in doing so, reshaping the future of digital art.

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Nina Knaack is a contemporary art historian and writer based in Amsterdam. She is passionate about telling the stories of artists so that they can focus on creating. Knaack has written for a range of cultural magazines in her homeland, including 3voor12 and Groninger Museum. Her work focuses on the digital art world and how crypto artists can build careers without gatekeepers. She also writes for Culture3 and Nifty Gateway, while working with artists and collectors.