Visitor numbers to museums and art galleries plummeted in 2020 and have only just started to recover in the West as government restrictions have begun to fall away. That has led to a serious income crisis for many of the smaller galleries around as well as some of the world-famous names with the greatest collections, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Of course, it is not just the domestic audience that the Uffizi – and many of the other leading art institutions in Italy – had to close its doors to. Florence is one of the top tourist destinations in Europe and the city is expected to see only a fraction of its usual visitors over the course of the current year.
So, even with some income revenue that is likely to pick up again in the near future, the Uffizi’s management team expect to face a tough financial outlook for some time to come. Consequently, they have decided to use digital tokens as a way of generating some of their lost income from visitors and to recoup at least a proportion of the losses the gallery has suffered as a result of the pandemic.
What the Uffizi Gallery has decided to do is to sell non-fungible tokens – known widely as NFTs – for some of the best-known artworks in its collection. Essentially, an NFT is a certificate of digital ownership. Many artists who produce digital artwork, such as videos or images that are nothing more than files held on a computer, have been using NFTs to represent the ownership of their electronic artworks. The idea is that through blockchain technology – the sort of openly sourced data verification system that is behind cryptocurrencies – selling a digital artwork, or a share in it, becomes practical. What some artists have been doing for a few years is to create an NFT when their work of art is ready to be sold and trade the NFT for cash which, in turn, represents the ‘true’ ownership of the digital art.
NFTs can be sold and resold just like any work of art. The major difference is that they do not exist in the real world, only in the digital realm. For digital artworks, NFTs are an enterprising way of proving ownership of art and its provenance. Without them, it would be relatively easy to make a digital copy of a work of art and claim that it is the original. Digital artists use them because it gives their buyers total confidence they own the one and only true version and that the artist him or herself won’t just sell the same thing to someone else down the line.
Nevertheless, NFTs have not been widely used for real-world works of art, certainly not some of the most famous pieces from the Renaissance which are in the custodianship of one of the world’s greatest galleries. However, the Uffizi Gallery has decided that now is the right time to use the same system that has caught on for much of the digital art world among its extensive collection.
The first NFT that was made available for sale by the Uffizi was Michelangelo’s painting Doni Tondo which was produced at the start of the sixteenth century. The encrypted token that was on offer sold for $170,000. According to the Italian press, the digital copy of the original work of art was purchased by an Italian woman who wanted to give her art-loving husband a birthday gift with a difference. Of course, had the real Doni Tondo gone on sale, then the expected price would have been without limit since such pieces rarely, if ever, become available to buy. What the lady in question has bought is, in effect, a line or two of digital code. However, what it represents is the digital form of the masterpiece and – crucially – the legal right to its digitised image that now cannot be replicated without her NFT proving prior ownership.
Partnerships and Paintings
The Uffizi said that it would share the proceeds of the Michaelangelo sale with an Italian company that is offering a platform for buyers to obtain digital copies of masterpieces. As part of a recently announced partnership with the firm, known as Cinello, the Uffizi expects to raise further sums from digitised versions of its impressive collection. According to Cinello, what it is creating is a virtual form of art, called a DAW, which means that the digital version of an image is rendered in the exact same dimensions as the original, something that could be displayed on a screen or projected. Importantly, however, each and every DAW that Cinello makes would be impossible to duplicate thanks to the NFT that is sold with it. In short, any counterfeit DAW would be easy to spot because its associated NFT token would be publicly date-stamped with a later date than the original made by Cinello.
Thanks to the popularity of the auction which saw the sale of the Michaelangelo NFT, the Uffizi Gallery’s board has said that it already intends to make more DAWs in partnership with Cinello. Early reports suggest that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus may get the treatment. Equally, Madonna del Granduca by Raphael, Venus of Urbino by Titian and Caravaggio’s Bacchus are all expected to be digitised for a future sale of NFTs. Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi’s director, said that he thought the move was not so much of a change in direction on gallery revenue, rather a means of adding a new revenue stream.
How long the gallery will need to rely on sales of digital copies of its masterpieces remains unclear. Although the Uffizi has reopened for visitors, its current attendance is much lower than the usual 5,000 or so people it could have expected every day before the pandemic struck.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.