Last week, during a auction organized at Bonhams in New York, a unique work by Andy Warhol was proposed. It wasn’t one of the Pop artist’s famous serigraphs, nor one of his most experimental videos. Instead, it was a diskette containing nine original digital artworks that the artist made on an Amiga 1000 computer in 1985, one of the first personal computers to offer color, sound and animation.
“During this morning [Friday, June 14, 1985] I went down to the Seagram building for this ‘How to Paint’ video that the computer company, Commodore, wants me to be the spokesperson for,” Warhol recounted in his diary. “And I guess I got the job […] It’s a $3,000 machine that looks like Apple’s but can do a hundred times more.
The subjects of the works include a sampling of Warhol’s most iconic themes – portraits of Marilyn Monroe, a can of Campbell’s soup, a dollar sign and even a self-portrait – but they were created in what was then a completely new medium and emergent: software programmed on a personal computer.
Normally, Warhols of these subjects in any format will spark fierce competition. Similar digital images discovered in 2011 by artist Cory Arcangel on floppy disks stored at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh fetched $3.4 million when auctioned as individual NFTs at Christie’s last year. At Bonhams on May 19, the lot – consisting of an Amiga 1000 computer plus nine original Warhols (including eight animations) contained on a floppy disk, previously belonging to a former Commodore treasurer – received only one bid, from $252,375 including fees.
The divergent result illustrates how the market for NFTs – despite being a newer and untested technology – has overtaken the much smaller and more specialized market for old and historical digital assets.
Bonhams’ Warhol record was purchased by the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that focuses on art made with computers. Jason Foumberg, the Thoma Foundation’s curator, attributes the wide price discrepancy between the Bonhams lot and Christie’s NFTs to two factors.
The first is, of course, the current hype around NFTs. Second, the use and display of vintage technology like the Warhol record often requires special skills outside of the realm of art conservation. The Warhol disc and Amiga computer were restored by its original owner, Don Greenbaum, a former Commodore treasurer, who was able to recover the contents of the disc by recreating the original software environment (formerly called GraphiCraft , later called Propaint) under which Warhol produced them.
“Traditional collectors fear equipment obsolescence,” Thoma told Artnet News, adding that there appears to be “a reluctance from museums and collectors to buy vintage technology.”
Amelia Manderscheid, Vice President and Senior Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Bonhams, says the Warhol Amiga remains an important discovery that illuminates the work of one of the most important artists of the 21st century. “This is the first animated art we’ve ever seen from Warhol,” she said, speculating that the price disparity between this sale of Amiga computers/floppy disks and NFTs might be “related to the increase exponential increase in the value of cryptocurrencies”.
Even the worst performer of Warhol’s unique static NFTs at Christie’s last year recovered $250,000, despite the fact that their format has raised questions of authenticity among pundits. In its bid to attract wealthy crypto investors, the auction house marketed the five digital images as “machine-made”, with Christie’s upscaling the original images from 320 x 200 non-square pixels to 4,500 x 6 000 pixels for their sale as NFT.
According to Golan Levin, however, who runs Carnegie Mellon’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for creative research lab, which along with Arcangel helped recover the files from Warhol’s computer between 2011 and 2014, the expansion fundamentally altered the originals. “Christie’s was blithely saying you get five original works of art,” Levin said in a interview with ART news last year, adding: “[they’re] Not precise. You get this kind of power of attorney or replacement.
Jehan Chu, an art collector and former auctioneer who bought one of the Warhol NFTs at Christie’s last year, disagreed, telling Artnet News that the issue is not so much whether one format is more valid than the other. “As a collector, what matters to me is its uniqueness, I don’t care if the format or the pixels have been changed,” he said. “Like a retouched painting for an auction, I am happy that when I present this work, it is as faithful as possible while remaining faithful to the spirit of the work.”
Chu bought Warhol’s NFT Untitled (Flower) for $525,000, more than double what the floppy disk and Amiga computer did with the nine restored images.
He added that while it is important to understand that the reproduction rights to the images stored on the floppy disk and the NFTs both remain under the strict control of the Warhol Foundation, ultimately the tension between the two media does not should not be confused with the uniqueness of the works made by the hand of Warhol.
Adding to this sentiment, others believe that NFTs will be more conducive to establishing long-term provenance. According to Ryan Zurrer, founder of Dialectic.chdigital art collector and owner of Beeple’s A HUMANNFTs are only a tool for establishing ownership, not to be confused with the art itself.
“We will continue to have issues regarding the provenance of legacy digital art,” Zurrer told Artnet News. “In my view, this lends credence to the value of NFTs in establishing provenance and digital rarity.”
Noting Warhol’s longstanding commitment to medium-agnostic experimentation, curator and technological scholar, Shumon Basar agreed, stating that the Amiga series establishes Warhol’s digital footprint.
“In a way,” Basar said, “that’s also part of the exciting new qualities of the medium – how it’s going to be claimed and claimed. Andy’s involvement with the Amiga computer at the time may have sounded like a crude endorsement of the product, but at the same time we could also say that every new artistic medium is also the invention of his future legal challenge .
However, Foumberg thinks he has landed a market on works whose historical importance will only grow. “The works are also all digitally signed by hand. You really have never seen Warhol artwork like this, it jumps off the screen,” he said. “Warhol was certainly comfortable with the synergy of brands and capitalism, but beyond that this work embodies a philosophy of early computer art. To have a 1985 Warhol in our collection, perhaps the one of the first examples of color and animated art on the PC, helps us tell the story of digital art in its fullness.
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