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Art news from third quarter 2021

The first half of 2021’s art news was dominated by the return to auctions, the debate over public works of art, new pieces by Banksy and the rise of the NFT art market, and not too much has changed throughout the third quarter of the year which saw some more Banksy news, a lot of NFT news, and an unexpected crossover of both.

As Coronavirus continued to impact society with sudden emergences of new variants, divisions over vaccines and lockdowns, and, particularly in the UK, continued high levels of infection, tensions continued to linger about returning to bustling London art galleries or attending real-world auctions. With little doubt the main beneficiary of this was the NFT market which typically exists entirely online, and has electrified interest from speculative art investors and many in the cryptocurrency community.

The third quarter began with something of an ultimate NFT going under the hammer; Tim Berners-Lee’s source code for the World Wide Web. In an auction organised by Sotheby’s, the NFT sold for over $5m which Berners-Lee, in typical generous fashion, had already pledged to a range of charities; but this was far from the only major NFT news of the quarter.

NFT art news includes more problem fakes, and tradition meeting the blockchain

It was unlikely that traditional art would stay out of the NFT market for very long, and the British Museum has made one of the early entries to the market creating a range of digital Hokusai postcards based on the great artist’s woodblock art prints. Not all NFTs have to be one-off unique pieces; creators will often mint NFTs as a limited edition in much the same way that traditional artforms use limited edition prints.

As Hokusai was not a digital artist, creating a one-off NFT of something like The Great Wave would be somewhat meaningless, however over summer the Whitworth Art Gallery found an interesting angle on this by producing a multispectral imaging analysis image of William Blake’s The Ancient of Days; an original digital image which could have been sold as a one-off, thought the gallery chose to run with a limited edition; but it will be interesting to see if other galleries follow suit.

NFTs have driven sales of contemporary artwork to an incredible £2.7bn annually, however it’s not all good news, fears often circulate about fakes; people posing as established artists and selling their digital work as NFTs. Most platforms have been working hard to confirm profiles are genuine, however in September a hoaxer managed to mint and sell a piece for £244,000 pretending to be street artist Banksy. The fee was returned to the collector in what seemed to be an attempt to bring more attention to the fakes issue in the market; sometimes, the same old problems persist even with digital authentication of various kinds.

But the real Banksy was also keeping busy over the last few months

Towards the end of summer a number of stencil murals in the style of Banksy began appearing in traditional British seaside towns around East Anglia, including Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, and Cromer. The artist later posted a video to his Instagram confirming the works as original, and part of a series titled A Great British Spraycation, with all of the artworks showing a sense of humour, but also a darker undertone, loosely critiquing many political and social issues within modern Britain.

Two months later Banksy’s infamous shredded artwork, Love Is In The Bin, went up for auction for the first time in its shredded state. Originally titled Girl With Balloon, the artwork shredded itself when it sold for $1.4m at Sotheby’s in 2018, gaining widespread media coverage, which no doubt helped carry it to an impressive sale price of $25.4m this time around. Whilst some critics were skeptical as to the value of his latest work, the art gallery world continues to value Banksy very highly, as do the general public who continue to drive an industry of cheap art prints of his work.

And so onto the final quarter of 2021, when perhaps some of the pre-pandemic crowds will return to real life events, whilst cryptocurrency markets boom once again suggesting that NFT art may yet have more surprises to come.

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