We talked with Beeple about how NFT mania led to his $69 million art sale

  • A piece of digital artwork by Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold for nearly $70 million last week.
  • Digital art backed by non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are exploding in popularity and value, and Beeple is riding the wave.
  • In an exclusive interview, Beeple told Insider about his unexpected fortune and the future of NFTs.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, has sold the most expensive work of digital art in history.

It’s part of an explosion in the market for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens – digital tokens that prove ownership of things like Beeple’s image that you can’t even touch.

“I honestly, like, I never thought I could sell my work,” Beeple said in an interview at his home in South Carolina. “Kind of late September, early October, people kept hitting me on being like, ‘Oh, you got to look at this NFT thing.'”

Two months later, in December, he netted $3.5 million selling art backed by NFTs.

In March, Christie’s, a 225-year-old auction house that previously only sold physical art, auctioned an entirely digital piece by Beeple. It sold for $69,346,250.

“If everybody wants it, well, then it has value,” Beeple said.

The speculation in this market is so wild that when a $95,000 Banksy piece was recently burned and turned into an NFT, the NFT was sold for nearly $400,000. A cat meme recently sold for $600,000. To understand who’s paying these prices, it’s important to understand NFTs.

“I really look at NFTs as like a blank slate,” he said. “And so it’s sort of like saying, do you think a webpage is valuable? Well, I don’t know. It could be, or it could be totally worthless.”

NFT stands for non-fungible token, essentially a digital signature backed by blockchain technology that proves ownership of something.

Unlike Bitcoin, which are all identical by design, NFTs are unique. To some degree, what NFTs offer for sale is the idea of scarcity. It’s possible to buy a token that represents art in the physical world, but NFTs also back digital assets like an image or a tweet.

“So May 1, 2007, I started doing a sketch a day, every single day, start to finish, and uploading it online,” Winkelmann said. “And after a year of that, I learned a lot about drawing. Like, I got much better at drawing. I was still very, very bad, as you can see from the Christie’s piece. But I learned a lot.”

Beeple_THUMB_V1
Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple.

Beeple’s popularity caught the attention of Christie’s in December. They decided on a collage of his first 5,000 days of work that forms a square of 21,069 x 21,069 pixels. To help make his digital art more accessible, back in December, Beeple provided a physical product along with the NFT for his digital art. But for Christie’s, being completely digital is what made Beeple’s work unique – and all the more valuable.

“It’s really a radical gesture to offer for sale something without any object, and we might as well lean into that,” said Noah Davis, specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s.

In the media, Beeple has been compared to artists like Banksy and Warhol, though his paid work has been as a graphic designer, with clients like Louis Vuitton, Nike and Apple.

“So I don’t really like the term artist because it sounds very pretentious and douche-y,” Beeple said.

“There’s an interesting parallel between Mike and Andy Warhol in the way that their careers developed,” Davis said. “Andy also started as an illustrator working in, basically, a gig economy.”

Critics have compared him with artists like Warhol, Banksy, and the Italian artist who taped a banana to the wall of a Paris art gallery.

“I’ve been thinking about the banana a lot, talking a lot about the banana,” Davis said. “It’s the dumbest idea, and you are basically celebrating a lack of creativity, like the bare minimum of creativity, but with Mike, it’s a ritual assignment of value that is celebrating 13 years of hard work of him doing this for no financial gain.”

For Beeple, the pace of change has been mind blowing. Back in the olden days of 2020, Beeple’s NFT-backed “Crossroads” sold for $66,666.

“At the time it was like, oh my God, I sold a piece for 66,000,” Beeple said. “It was just, like, insane.”

In December, he sold $3.5 million worth of art in one day. Then, on February 26, Crossroads was resold on a secondary NFT market for $6.6 million, of which Beeple got a 10% cut.

Then in March, Christie’s sold the 5,000 image montage by Beeple for $69.3 million.

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Why printer ink is so expensive

  • Printer ink can often be more expensive than the printer itself.
  • Using an outdated “razor-and-blades” business model, printer companies sell printers at a loss and make up for it in ink sales.
  • Printer companies do whatever they can to squash competition from more economical and sustainable third party options by frequently updating the firmware in the cartridges.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories. 

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: A gallon of printer ink can cost you $12,000. When in cartridge form, it’s more expensive than vintage Champagne and even human blood. In fact, it can be cheaper to buy an entire printer than it is to purchase new ink cartridges. So why is printer ink so expensive?

Let’s start with the first printers. No, not that far. No. Come on. There we go. Inkjet printers were first developed in the 1960s, and early computer inks were made from food dye and water. Because of this, they would fade after a few months, so companies had to develop a dye that gave permanent photographic quality. In 1988, Hewlett-Packard achieved just that, with the first mass-market inkjet printer, which sold for about $1,000. But a lot has changed since then.

Today, you can buy a brand-new printer for around $35. But there’s a catch. When the ink runs out in one of these printers, you need to buy specific cartridges, and these cartridges are expensive. So why are the cartridges so pricey?

David Connett: Oh that’s simple: greed. And an outdated razor-and-blades model.

Narrator:  This is David Connett. He’s the former editor of The Recycler and has been lobbying for change in the printer-ink industry for years.

Connett: They sell the printers cheap. They sell the consumables at a very expensive price. And basically it’s a formula: The cheaper the printer, the more expensive the consumables.

Narrator:  Once you’ve bought a printer that uses cartridges you’re trapped in a cycle. You have no choice but to buy them, or throw away your printer. As a printer is typically a one-time purchase, companies don’t mind selling them at a loss and making the money back through cartridge sales. The HP Envy 4520 all-in-one printer, for example, sells for $70 but is estimated to cost $120 to manufacture. The loss they make on printers means that companies need to sell ink cartridges to make a profit, and this model has led to a battleground between printer manufacturers and third-party ink suppliers. The companies do everything they can to keep you buying official ink cartridges. Manufacturers install microchips into their cartridges and frequently issue firmware updates to prevent the use of third-party ink, which can be more affordable.

Connett: Last year, almost 900 firmware upgrades were issued by just nine printer manufacturers, so that’s almost three a day. I mean, that’s just, like, either absolute incompetence, ’cause you’ve got to do it so much, or it is a definite stealth tactic to control the market.

Narrator: Printer companies attribute the high costs to the research and development that goes into perfecting printer ink. The materials they use, however, cost very little.

Connett: The manufacturing cost of ink is between €20 and €40 a liter.

Narrator: And a lot of the ink you buy never even gets used for printing. According to a 2018 test by Consumer Reports, more than half the ink you buy could end up lost in maintenance cycles for cleaning the printheads. And printers that use multiple-color ink cartridges also stop working as soon as one color runs out, even if the other colors are still full. These days, you’re getting even less for your money. While the cartridges themselves are the same size and price, they often contain far less ink inside than they used to. The ink in many manufacturers’ cartridges has shrunk from 20 mil to around 5 mil over the past few years, without any reduction in price. The original-size 20 mil cartridges are often still on sale but are often sold as extra-large cartridges for even more money. And some new cartridges can have as little as 3 milliliters of ink inside. Some companies have now even started ink subscriptions, deactivating your cartridges remotely if you print more than your allocated pages. Laser printers offer a lower-cost alternative to inkjet but produce a lower-quality printed image. The real solution for many, though, would be to offer more-efficient ink cartridges.

Connett: This product, you know, can be better engineered. They could liaise with the aftermarket to actually, you know, find a solution that works for everybody because, you know, this, ultimately, this is bad for the consumer, because it’s overpriced and expensive, and it’s bad for the environment, because it doesn’t need to be made that way.

Narrator: We reached out to Canon and HP for comment. HP replied with this statement:

“Original HP ink and toner cartridges deliver the best possible printing experience for customers. We make significant investments in R&D each year to provide the highest levels of print quality, safety and environmental sustainability. When customers purchase HP, they are reducing plastic waste and contributing to a circular economy. And we work tirelessly to maximize value for our customers, including Instant Ink, our “ink delivery” subscription service which includes ink, shipping and recycling.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on August 19, 2019. 

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