November 3, 2022

The Currency of Rarity

A cast of prominent collectors shares its strategies and favorite pieces with Ryan Roybal of NFT Collective
Credit: shxmxskx, (Still from) Takoma, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Now Reading:  
The Currency of Rarity

Ryan Roybal: How would you describe your approach to collecting?

Kevin Abosch: I collect artworks for different reasons, but the driving motivation is my desire to fully experience a work. One aspect of NFTs that I particularly appreciate is that they are non-invasive. When one collects a large painting, unless it is destined for storage, the work takes its place on a wall. It occupies space. For better or worse it invades that space. In this sense, NFTs are less of a burden. One can have thousands of NFTs, which allows one to choose when and how to appreciate them. For this reason, I am certain that there are digital works I’ve collected that I might not have had they come with the burden of taking up physical space.

Merel van Helsdingen: My approach to collecting is to buy pieces which have activist impact or make historical reference to the new media art world. This might be a work by Herbert W. Franke or from his Tribute, or else Operator and Anika Meier’s conceptual artwork, Unsigned (2022), which sought to confront the art world’s gender pay gap by collating signatures from 100 women and non-binary artists and selling them as NFTs to assert their real value. 

For me, art that involves programming should live on the blockchain and I think it will only grow from here. But art on the blockchain is also a really interesting genre within new media art.
Sofia Crespo, soft_colonies_1898, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Ganbrood: I have always been a collector, starting with comic books when I was nine years old. I still own more than a hundred handheld computer games from the early 1980s, from Donkey Kong on Nintendo’s Game & Watch with LCD display to a tabletop Pac-Man with LED. 

As the son of two artists who grew up in Amsterdam’s museum district, my love for art started at an early age but, prior to NFTs, I didn’t have the means to collect the majority of works that I really liked. Before I began minting my own work, I was skeptical about buying digital editions myself, but after a few days on Hic et Nunc in March 2021, I became totally hooked on collecting. I spent my last savings on works I loved — the FOMO was strong with this one. When I encountered a work that resonated with me and was affordable, I bought it. My behavior as a collector has always been quite erratic and intuitive because it was mostly driven by passion. After more than a year of collecting at an average of 15 tokens a day, I have cooled down a little. 

Iskra Velitchkova: I follow two very basic principles. Either I collect pieces that I just like or they resonate with me or else works that I think will be relevant in the future. The market goes too fast for me and I don’t follow the trends much. I would like to create a nice collection without any rush and enjoy the process. I feel that we are living in a really significant moment in art and I am proud of each and every piece that I collect. I don’t think I’ve ever sold a work on Tezos — they are all for me and for my “future me.” Beauty rules every decision I take without any financial pressure.

thefunnyguys: First of all, collecting digital art allows me to be part of a broader movement which feels revolutionary. The introduction of digital property rights happens exactly once, and witnessing how this technological innovation is changing the Internet and by consequence the lives of millions of people across the globe is extremely exciting. 

Within the space of digital art, I’m focused on generative art. I appreciate how generative artists actively embrace randomness in their artistic process, leading to results that not only surprise the collector but also the artists themselves. Generative art has a rich history, which interacts in a symbiotic way with the proliferation we’re witnessing today. The current generation of generative artists brings more eyeballs to the pioneers, and the pioneers give a valuable art historical background to the current generation. As a collector of generative art, I’m focused on detecting and supporting emerging artistic talent. I hope my early support inspires artists to keep creating by showing them that our space has long-term collectors who can turn their passion into a financially viable occupation. But I also make sure to collect art from leading figures in the generative art space. If I have to pay more to acquire a piece from someone like Manoloide or Herbert W. Franke, I gladly do so. 

Larva Labs, CryptoPunk #3128, 2017. Courtesy of the artists
Top 3 pieces — thefunnyguys
Our CryptoPunk (2017) is definitely in the top three, as it has evolved from a simple JPEG to the focal point of our digital identity. If you ever see us selling this piece, we have probably been hacked or hit rock bottom. 
We recently acquired soft_colonies_1898 (2022) by Sofia Crespo, and this has rapidly become an all-time favorite of mine. Sofia’s art is just fascinating, one of the best examples of how technology can enrich our visual experiences, and holding this piece is a blessing.
As a third pick, I want to go for Math Art (1980-1995) - Math Art 95 - No. 25 (2022) by Herbert W. Franke, who sadly passed away recently. It feels special to hold a stunning piece by such a unique individual who can be seen as both a generative art and metaverse pioneer.
Herbert W. Franke, Math Art (1980-1995) - Math Art 95 - No. 25, 2022. Courtesy thefunnyguys

RR: How do you evaluate the works you collect? How do you differentiate one work from another?

MvH: I look into records of the artist. I also investigate the work they produced before the NFT craze. There’s a lot to say for artists who have worked outside of the blockchain — they might have built apps, websites, or complete digital ecosystems, as well as traditional museum installations. I also consider whether they have been collected by a big museum, for example artists like Harm van den Dorpel, Jonas Lund, and Rafaël Rozendaal. They all take a 360-degree approach which also involves offline pieces and fine art prints.

KA: I collect works that trigger me emotionally. I gravitate toward works that feel honest. 

IV: I need to find a story in the piece. We are immersed in a huge creative tornado right now and that pushes experimentation strongly. I admire every artist who goes in this direction. However, where collecting is concerned, I appreciate when there is visual consistency across multiple pieces in addition to technical mastery. That usually means an additional layer of abstraction. 

qubibi, MMZ 9, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

I come across many impressive works that explore the translation of the physical world into code. These often involve incredible detail and concordance. However, I am more interested in those works which recreate illusions rather than “objective” realities. I love to see the presence of the machine and its own way of exploring possible worlds.

tfg: Lately, I have been spending most of my time on Tezos, where the low price points and even lower transaction costs make it feasible to experiment. When an artist creates beautiful images that bring me joy, that’s usually enough for me to collect their work. But when an artist blows my mind with a clearly distinctive style or concept that enriches our space, I will go deep in trying to build a horizontal collection of their work in order to showcase a large part of their practice. A few artists that made me do this are Iskra Velitchkova, Michaël Zancan, qubibi, Caesuras, Travess Smalley, and Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez.

G: Usually, I try to find out a little more about a piece that touches me. But sometimes it is the other way around — I get to know an artist through the community and learn to appreciate their work. Even though I buy most NFTs based on gut feeling, extensive knowledge of developing styles and what is original in the space increasingly influences my purchases. Even now, I still fall for the occasional shameless rip off. But I am very visually oriented and those works that are more visual than conceptual often have a lower threshold. Art that relies heavily on ideas and backstory definitely requires more research.

Caesuras, CSRSNT-CAAI-011-of-128.png, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Top 3 pieces — Ganbrood
When I collected Caesuras’s magnificent piece of generative art, CSRSNT-CAAI-011-of-128.png (2021) in the second month of Hic et Nunc’s existence, I had no idea who had made it. Even when I found it, I had to learn about the history of the artist behind it. Collecting this particular work represents my instant attraction to a genre that I think will be the most important art movement from this time in history.
My next choice is qubibi’s MMZ 9 (2021). Kazumasa Teshigawara was there from the start, and the growth of our popularity on Tezos had a similar trajectory. I fell madly in love with his mystifying worms and even though he wasn’t giving it away, I started collecting when practically nobody paid attention. It was easy to contact him and discuss our work and the market as peers. I think our relations would have been very different had I only been a collector.
There is something absolutely magical about Satoshi Aizawa’s hypnotizing path animations, such as The Path v2016-03-26 (2021). Equilibrating between simple and complicated, classic and modern, I remember seeing this genesis on Twitter, weeks before he even minted it. I was ecstatic when it suddenly showed up on Hic et Nunc. Somehow, he still seems a bit shy and indecisive when it comes to presenting his work on the blockchain but I still have high hopes for his future as a crypto artist.
Satoshi Aizawa, The Path v2016-03-26, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RR: How do you understand the concept of “rarity” and has its meaning changed for you in recent years?

KA: I have consciously worked at eliminating rarity or scarcity from my personal value system. In my own work, I have examined and challenged the notion that rare objects are inherently more “valuable.” The human desire to possess rare objects is unhealthy.  It has its roots in the dark side of the ego. 

Just as the ego cannot be fully extinguished, it would be unreasonable to expect people to stop wanting what others don’t have. 

G: Rarity is a highly relative factor — there are estimated to be around 180,000 original Picasso prints in circulation. I have also learned that rarity is subjective. Sometimes, I feel a little sad if I don’t manage to hold onto an edition of a work I’ve sold. But this is crazy when you think about it, since the work is only sitting on my hard drive. Humans love to believe. The sensation of owning a single edition of an artist’s work hardly compares to what I feel when holding one out of an edition of 40. That is all in my head.

Operator & Anika Meier, Giulia Bowinkel (Unsigned), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

IV: I understand rarity today as a very human need to feel special. Even if it’s not always immediately obvious, uniqueness is what differentiates the artist or artisan from the production line. 

Besides a financial metric, rarity is a tool for generative artists to explore the boundaries and limits of a system, where outliers reside. It also gives collectors the chance to feel a connection with the artist. 

We often connect rarity to value, and this is normal and understandable, but if we go beyond purely financial considerations, I think Sasha Belitskaja’s words can bring some light to the beauty of the concept: “we don’t want to look pretty anymore, we want to look unique.”

tfg: Rarity is an intriguing topic, which can be addressed from many different perspectives. It usually depends on the features decided by the artist, and it’s important to examine the nature of these features. Do they influence the aesthetics of the piece, or are they more technical features that do not interfere with the viewer’s experience? 

Features, and the consequent rarity score, can be an artistic statement. They can be a tool for the artist to draw collector attention to those aspects they care most about, while helping new collectors to gain confidence in their selections. We can determine subjectively whether a piece is beautiful, but collectors can always lean on the rarity score as a more objective means of rationalizing an acquisition. As they grow more experienced, collectors will often start to disregard rarity and rely more on their eye. I think this is happening in the digital art market at the moment, since most collectors have been active for a while now. But rarity scores can also boost the financialization potential of generative art, as lending protocols can rely on rarity to calculate more accurate value estimates for these illiquid assets.

MvH: We are currently building a collection of new media art at Nxt Museum. Of course, artists can decide on the number of editions they wish to make, but with tech, artists like Heleen Blanken can keep digitizing natural objects and adding them to her ecosystem. The question is: which element of her work do you collect, the world or the entire ecosystem? Do you then display the NFT that you own on a big screen in a museum space? These days, a single work can operate across different channels. For me, the concept of rarity changed a lot with the NFT and I don’t think artworks need to be single editions any more to be valuable. In fact, I think many works will become more valuable because multiple collectors are able to collect a single project.

Harm van den Dorpel, Mutant Garden Seeder — Gollie, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Top 3 pieces — Merel van Helsdingen
My first choice is Harm van den Dorpel’s Mutant Garden Seeder for sure. I bought it for $300 sitting next to Harm, and minted it with him. That’s why it’s my favorite work. I value it because I sat next to him and he explained his way of working, showing us his fine art prints and on-screen generative work in a gallery. 
My second choice is Giulia Bowinkel’s Unsigned (2022) signature. I connect with the message behind it, highlighting how women are undervalued in the art world. For me, collecting this work is also sending a message.
My final choice is Jonas Lund’s MVP (Most Valuable Painting) #449 (2022). From a conceptual point of view, splitting the sale into drops of 75 was so smart, with each drop progressively increasing in its floor price.
Jonas Lund, MVP (Most Valuable Painting) #415 Fantastic Rise, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

RR: How important is display to your experience of NFTs?

IV: This question makes me feel old. I must admit, even if I have progressively accepted the value of widening my digital collection, it remains important to have a physical and signed edition of works that are particularly special to me. 

The whole experience of display enhances the work — you can’t compare going to the cinema with watching a movie at home. It matters whether a gallery is equipped with proper technologies for display. However, I am still wondering what it means to display a long-form generative art project. 

tfg: NFTs are always on display, which is the beauty of their innovation. When someone collects a piece, it doesn’t disappear in a dusty attic, it is still there for anyone with an internet connection to appreciate.

When it comes to displaying art for my own purposes, I spend a lot of time looking at screens, so I make sure to have my favorite pieces as backgrounds. Whenever I open my phone or laptop, my appreciation for the piece on display grows. 
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates (Project for Central Park NYC), 2003. Courtesy of Iskra Velitchkova

I do not have dedicated digital displays yet, although I’m open to recommendations, so when I want to live with a piece, I usually order and frame a physical print from the artist. I believe we have over 50 physical pieces, and counting. Twitter is the tool I rely on most for the public display of art. I share works on a daily basis, and both artists and collectors seem to appreciate this. Digital galleries become useful when I want to draw attention to a focused selection from our collection. I hope to have a dedicated collection website in the near future. 

MvH: From the perspective of Nxt Museum, display is everything. It’s very important for artists to have the space to show their work in a larger form and to move away from the culture of tiny low-res images. Display is also a way for artists to get people to understand the meaning behind their work, while ensuring that audiences experience work beyond the realm of collecting and social media. However, as a collector, I don’t personally care about displaying my NFTs in my own world.

G: I am an exhibitionist, and that is probably why I have become an artist — to show off and to communicate my personality to other earthlings. But curation and collection can serve the same function. Up to now, I have been so immersed in creating my own work that I haven’t had the time or patience to put together a virtual gallery of my collection. Being a perfectionist doesn’t help in that regard. 

KA: My desire is to have the display or displays that the artist suggests for their work. 

shxmxskx, (Still from) Takoma, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Top 3 pieces — Iskra Velitchkova
My favorite NFT piece is one of the first works I collected from Hic et Nunc, shxmxskx’s Takoma (2021). I mean, look at it. 
My second most precious piece is not an NFT but a signed sketch by Christo and Jeanne-Claude from 2003. I have always admired this couple and their approach to (free) art as well as their capacity to think big. Last year, after Christo had passed away, Paris covered the Arc de Triomphe in tribute. I visited the city on this occasion and it moved me profoundly. A few months later, I went to Sofia (my and his hometown!) and out of the blue, I saw an exhibition of his sketches in a very nice old building. I entered and I couldn’t resist purchasing one of his sketches; it’s very special to me. 
Third, though there is no order to this list, is Vera Molnar’s 1% de désordre (1% of disorder) (1976). Strictly speaking, it was my partner who collected it, but it’s a piece we own at home. No words are needed to explain why I mention it. The beauty of the piece itself, the story behind it — which is the story of so many women reaching their own place in history; I remain eternally grateful for being part of the same exhibition and I believe in the iconic value of her work. I feel her legacy, as well as the legacy of all pioneers that precede us as an Olympic flame that presides over our living room.
Vera Molnar, 1% de désordre (1% of disorder), 1976. Courtesy of the artist

RR: Has the art of collecting changed recently and how do you see it evolving in the near future?

MvH: Collecting has definitely changed because I’ve been giving seminars on how to collect, what collectors should look out for, and how to evaluate price. The blockchain and NFTs have created space for plural communities, and you can now collect works by a larger number of artists who have been historically underrepresented. As a collector, this gives one a much broader perspective on life because a lot of art is activism and pushes social and political boundaries. On the other hand, there is now less context to art, unless you go to a gallery. On Twitter, you can encounter a work without knowing its medium, meaning, or why it’s special. However, that layer of context has started to return in the last year and a half thanks to new curatorial platforms that are dedicated to storytelling.

KA: NFTs have made collecting at scale much easier. For the time being, I still feel they are best suited for natively digital works. 

tfg: 2022 is a totally different beast compared to 2021. Last year, speculation reigned and collectors were active in whatever NFT niche was booming at the time. In 2022, we are recovering from a healthy crash, and there are fewer speculators left in the market. This has made it easier to think clearly and go after the pieces you really like, without feeling too much FOMO. We are now seeing a clearer segmentation of different works, with most collectors focusing on a certain niche within the broader NFT space. The overlap between PFP (Profile Picture) speculators and art collectors is also decreasing, and I believe this trend will only become more pronounced.

G: NFTs have opened up a new world for collectors and artists. Art is not only more accessible for the first group, it has also made it a lot easier for artists from locations and cultural backgrounds that previously lacked the means to access a wider audience.

Combined with the fact that artists and collectors can communicate and trade more directly than ever before, I am pretty sure NFTs will revolutionize the wider world of art and collecting.  

IV: The art of collecting has changed dramatically. I remember a few years ago, when I decided to start collecting art, I felt like a kid when asking for prices at galleries. I really wanted to start collecting, but I felt out of place. How do I start, how do I talk, how do I negotiate, where do I store everything, where do I find the money? There were too many barriers.

Things changed for me with Hic et Nunc, and everyone who joined in the early days will know what I am talking about. When we began collecting it was just like a game. At some point I realized that I was able to collect work by artists I had admired for a long time. Two years on, I am convinced that the world has changed. We are establishing a new way of interacting, sharing, and collecting. I still need time to process all this change, but I feel incredibly lucky to be part of it. 

Top 3 pieces — Kevin Abosch
This is a very difficult question to answer in a straightforward manner as I have over a thousand physical artworks in my collection and more than 10,000 NFTs. My relationship with the entirety of my collection is something living and therefore always in flux. As far as the NFTs I have collected over the past few years, I don’t think of them as individual works. Each work is like a page in a book, and the book is still being written.
🎴🎴🎴

Kevin Abosch is an Irish conceptual artist who works across traditional mediums and generative methods, including machine learning and blockchain technology. His work addresses the nature of identity and value by posing ontological questions and responding to sociological dilemmas. Abosch has exhibited around the world, often in civic spaces, including The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; National Museum of China, Beijing; Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Novi Sad; Bogotá Museum of Modern Art; ZKM Karlsruhe; Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; National Gallery of Ireland and Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; and Dublin Airport.

Ganbrood (Bas Uterwijk) has a background in special effects, 3D animation, video games, and photography. Mostly self-taught, he has always been involved in forms of visual storytelling that imitate and distort reality. Since 2019, he has worked with GANs (generative adversarial networks), deep learning AI-based software that interprets and synthesizes photographs. With the help of these neural networks, he constructed photos that were never recorded by an actual camera — portraits of people who lived before the camera was invented or who never existed. Since early 2021, he has been minting his own work on the Tezos blockchain. It didn’t take long before the penny dropped, and within a year Ganbrood had collected at least 6,000 different NFTs from fellow artists.

Merel van Helsdingen founded Nxt Museum in 2020 as the first museum dedicated to new media art in The Netherlands, bringing together arts and technology. She seeks to push the limits of what a museum can be in the digital age by bridging the gap between the digital and physical worlds while offering space for research, education, experiment, and creation. She has actively promoted digital artists and Web3 since the early days of the NFT space and has collected NFTs herself since 2020. She has worked at Apple, BBH Global, and PVH on digital marketing strategy, business development, and cultural partnerships with music and entertainment companies such as Disney, Rovio, Universal Music, and YouTube between London and Amsterdam. She sits on the advisory boards of several digital and cultural initiatives including Schemerlicht Festival and Stichting Door!

thefunnyguys is a Belgian generative art collector who shares his collection with his two brothers. He has been collecting NFTs since late 2020 and, since discovering Art Blocks, generative art has been his main passion. He is an advisor at Metaversal and is currently preparing a generative art-focused project that is soon to be announced publicly.

Iskra Velitchkova is a computational artist who explores technology through generative systems. She is inspired by every kind of interaction between humans and machines in both digital and physical expressions. With a background in data visualization, she has held strategy roles in different scientific teams and, in 2014 and 2015, was selected by Google Brain and IBM to present a poster at the IEEE VIS Conference. She has exhibited globally, including at Art Basel, Galerie Kate Vass, Unit London, and on Feral File. Her work has also been auctioned at Sotheby’s. She is currently preparing her next exhibition at Bright Moments Mexico City. 

Ryan Roybal entered the crypto art world in 2020 and quickly built NFT Collective, an artist-led community which uses Web3 to bridge the gap between digital and physical worlds through education and creative empowerment. An alumnus of ArtCenter College of Design, Roybal saw the convergence of his past creative professions collide in a space where he finally felt at home as an artist, collector, and producer. In 2021, he founded a gallery in New York and has since produced Web3-specific events, most recently VerticalCrypto Art’s “Proof of People” and NFT Collective’s “Evenings” series.