Crypto art Block 21

Crypto art paying tribute to Bitcoin’s inventor sells for $130,000 at auction

The selling price of the Satoshi Nakamoto-themed artwork was seven times the “high” estimate set by Christie’s, one of the world’s best-known auction houses

An homage to Bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder has gone under the hammer at one of the world’s most-respected auction houses—selling for seven times more than its high estimate.

In “Block 21,” 322,048 digits from Satoshi Nakamoto’s original code for Bitcoin are painstakingly engraved and individually painted. It’s part of a wider collection of 40 circular panels called “Portraits Of A Mind” that feature a full transcription of all 12.3 million digits.

Bidding at the Christie’s auction house had originally started at $22,000—far beyond the initial estimate of $12,000 to $18,000—but the artwork ended up selling for a whopping $131,250.

Block 21, constructed by the London-based artist Ben Gentilli, is a physical piece of art with an accompanying non-fungible token (NFT) that is an integral part of the artwork.

Gentilli is the founder of the Robert Alice project, founded in 2018 “to promote blockchain culture within the visual arts.”

The philosophy

According to the Christie’s website, Portraits Of A Mind aims to liken Bitcoin’s code to the “Magna Carta of the 21st century.” It’s also described as the largest work of art in blockchain’s history. This sale was significant because it marked the first time that artwork from the project had become publicly available, with the first 20 circular panels “now housed in important private and corporate collections around the world.”

Crypto art Block 21
Text of the Bitcoin code on Block 21 of “Portraits Of A Mind” (Photo: Robert Alice project)

Gentilli’s idea was also to ensure that one owner couldn’t end up owning the entire series—conjuring up “a symbolic expression of decentralization drawing up a global network of 40 collectors where no one individual will hold all the code.”

But the deep meaning behind this artwork doesn’t end here, according to Christie’s:

“Resource intensive proof-of-work processes are visualized through the aesthetics on which they were modelled—rare metal mining. Gold digits, algorithmically unearthed, become metaphors for bitcoins past, present and future.”

Much has also been made of the physicality of this artwork, “drawing parallels between the cultures of the past and the technology of our future.”

The accompanying NFT, on an OpenDime hardware key, is a digital representation of the physical Block 21. The way the artwork is seen on it changes from day to night depending on the physical version’s location and time zone. 

Who bought it?

Sadly, as with many auctions of this size, it’s not known who purchased Block 21.

Gentilli, who founded the Robert Alice project, has said that his motivation was to create a portrait of Nakamoto—even though no one knows the cryptographer’s true identity.

All of this comes as the notion of crypto art continues to grow. You can have works that are devoted to digital assets, imaginative creations that are expressed in the form of non-fungible tokens, and classic masterpieces where ownership is duly recorded on the blockchain—paving the way for expensive art to be fractionally owned by many people.

For some advocates, this equates to a democratization of the art world—and it could also offer a virtual lifeline for the museums that have been forced to close their doors because of coronavirus.

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Connor Sephton is a journalist with an interest in cryptocurrencies, personal finance, and financial inclusion—as well as the challenges the crypto industry faces in achieving mainstream adoption. He owns cryptocurrencies.