How London is becoming the centre for digital art and NFT auctions

A woman looks at an NFT titled
A woman looks at a digital art NFT titled CURIO CARDS (EST. 2017). (AFP via Getty Images)

The rise of digital art and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has taken the world by storm this year, and as our purchasing habits continue to shift online, London has found itself at the forefront of the mania.

Since their creation in 2014, a growing number of people are now spending a fortune on things that cannot be seen or felt in real life through NFTs – from digital clothing to artwork, and from music to GIFs.

An NFT is a unique, one-of-a-kind crypto asset that enables collectors to authenticate, own and trade original authenticated versions of special digital goods on the blockchain.

In economics, a fungible asset is something with units that can be readily interchanged, like money. You are able to swap a £10 note for two £5 notes and it will have the same value.

However, if something is non-fungible, it has unique properties so it cannot be interchanged with something else.

When an NFT is bought, the person purchasing receives a certificate secured in blockchain technology, which makes them the owner of that specific digital asset.

This cannot be replicated or substituted, and it can only have one official owner at any given time. NFTs are transparent and no one is able to modify the record of ownership or copy/paste a new NFT into existence.

Read more: Non-fungible tokens: What are NFTs and why are they creating such a stir?

According to a study from NonFungible, the total value of NFT transactions quadrupled to approximately £178m ($242m) last year. The number of digital wallets trading them doubled to over 222,179, it added.

Meanwhile, sales volumes have surged to $10.7bn (£7.8bn) in the third quarter of this year, up more than eightfold from the previous quarter, according to data from market tracker DappRada.

London in particular has ridden the frenzy, with galleries and auction houses across the City tapping into digital art and NFTs.

Christie’s auction house is currently offering five works by Nigerian artist Osinachi while the City’s Saatchi Gallery hosted an immersive private view last month, leading to an auction.

Watch: What is an NFT? Here's why some are paying millions for digital art

The British Museum is also selling NFTs of more than 200 works by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It has partnered with French startup LaCollection to launch digital postcards with reproduced paintings of Hokusai’s work, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

The launch of a Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, entitled The Great Big Picture Book Of Everything, will contribute to half of the NFTs sold, while the remainder will come from the museum’s own collection, plus 103 never-seen-before drawings discovered from the book.

British contemporary artist Damien Hirst is also set to present his series of 10,000 NFTs at an exhibition taking place as part of this year’s Frieze London art fair.

Read more: NFT mania hits the stock market with £35m London listing

Elsewhere in the UK, the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester minted and sold an NFT of a famous William Blake image, with proceeds going towards a fund for community-based “socially beneficial projects”.

The rise of digital art comes amid recent cuts to art and culture funding, meaning artists are seeking new means to create and sell their work.

Galleries and museums also had to close their doors during the coronavirus pandemic to curb the spread of the virus, and the movement provides a new form of funding as well as a draw from younger audiences.

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