Last week at a auction held at Bonhams in New York, a unique work by Andy Warhol was offered. It wasn’t one of the pop artist’s famous screenprints, nor one of his more experimental videos. Instead, it was a disk containing nine original digital artworks created by the artist in 1985 on an Amiga 1000 computer, one of the first personal computers to offer colour, sound and animation.
“This morning [Friday, June 14, 1985] I went to the Seagram building for this “How to Paint” video thing that the Commodore computer company wants me to narrate,” Warhol said in his journals. “And I think I got the job […] It’s a $3,000 machine that’s like the Apple thing but can do a hundred times more.”
The works’ motifs include a selection of Warhol’s most iconic subjects – portraits of Marilyn Monroe, a Campbell soup can, a dollar sign and even a self-portrait – but they were created in a then entirely new and emerging medium: software programmed on a personal computer.
Normally, Warhols on these themes in any format will spark heated competition. Similar digital images discovered by artist Cory Arcangel in 2011 on disks preserved at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh fetched $3.4 million last year when they were auctioned off as individual NFTs at Christie’s. At Bonhams on May 19, the lot – consisting of an Amiga 1000 computer plus nine original Warhols (eight of them animations) on a disk previously owned by a former Commodore treasurer – received just a single bid of $252,375 inclusive Fees .
The divergent result shows how the market for NFTs – despite being a newer, untested technology – has overtaken the much smaller, more niche market for early and historical digital assets.
The Warhol disk at Bonhams was purchased by the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit focused on computer art. Jason Foumberg, the trustee of the Thoma Foundation, attributes the large price difference between the Bonhams lot and Christie’s NFTs to two factors.
The first, of course, is the current hype surrounding NFTs. Second, the use and presentation of vintage technology like the Warhol disc often requires special skills outside of the field of art preservation. The Warhol disk and Amiga computer were restored by their original owner, Don Greenbaum, a former treasurer at Commodore, who was able to recover the disk’s contents by restoring the original software environment (first called GraphiCraft, later called Propaint) under the Warhol produced them.
“Traditional collectors fear obsolescence of equipment,” Thoma told Artnet News, adding that there seems to be a “reluctance on the part of 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 sheds light on the oeuvre 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 difference between these Amiga computer/disk sales and the NFTs “could be related to the exponential increase in the value of cryptocurrencies.”
Even the underperforming of the individual, static Warhol NFTs at Christie’s fetched $250,000 last year – despite the fact that its format raised doubts about its authenticity among experts. To attract wealthy crypto investors, the auction house marketed the five digital images as “machine-made,” with Christie’s upping the original images from 320 x 200 non-square pixels to 4,500 x 6,000 pixels for their sale as NFTs.
According to Golan Levin, who runs Carnegie Mellon’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for creative requests lab, which along with Arcangel helped recover files from Warhol’s computer between 2011 and 2014, the extension fundamentally altered the originals. “Christie’s blithely said you’re getting five original artworks,” Levin said in one Interview with ARTnews last year and added: “[they’re] not exactly. You get that kind of deputy or proxy.”
Jehan Chu, an art collector and former auction house specialist who bought one of the Warhol NFTs at Christie’s last year, disagreed, telling Artnet News that it’s not so much a question of whether one format is more valid than the other. “As a collector, I’m interested in uniqueness, I don’t care that the format or the pixels have been changed,” he said. “Like a painting that has been retouched for auction, I am pleased to present this work with the highest possible fidelity while remaining true to the spirit of the work.”
Chu bought the NFT from Warhol Untitled (Flower) for $525,000, more than double what the disk and Amiga computer cost with all nine restored images.
He added that while it is important to understand that the reproduction rights to the images stored on disk and the NFTs both remain under the strict control of the Warhol Foundation, the tension between the two mediums should not be confused with the uniqueness of the works of Warhol’s hand.
Additionally, others believe that NFTs will be more conducive to provenance over the long term. According to Ryan Zurrer, founder of Dialektik.chDigital art collector and owner of Beeple’s PERSONNFTs are merely a tool to establish ownership and are not to be confused with the actual art itself.
“We will continue to have issues with the provenance of digital legacy art,” Zurrer told Artnet News. “In my view, this underscores the value of NFTs in determining provenance and digital scarcity.”
Noting Warhol’s longstanding commitment to media-agnostic experimentation, curator and technology expert Shumon Basar agreed, stating that the Amiga series defined Warhol’s digital footprint.
“In a way,” Basar said, “this is also part of the exciting new qualities of the medium — how it will be claimed and disproved.” Andy’s involvement with the Amiga computer may have looked like a blatant product advertisement at the time, but at the same time one could also say that every new art medium is also the invention of its future legal challenge.”
Still, Foumberg believes he has struck a bargain on works whose historical importance will only grow. “In addition, the works are all digitally signed by hand. You’ve really never seen Warhol artworks like this, they jump off the canvas,” he said. “Warhol was certainly familiar with brand synergies and capitalism, but beyond that, this artwork embodies an ethos of early computer art. Having a 1985 Warhol in our collection, perhaps one of the earliest examples of computer-generated art in color and animation, helps us tell the story of digital art in its entirety.”
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