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The 10,000 Faces That Launched an NFT Revolution

Within 24 hours, all the Punks were gone; one man who saw the post amassed 758 of them.

Within days, collectors started to buy and sell—but right away, they ran into trouble. When someone tried to buy a Punk, a horrific bug in the smart contract caused the payment to travel not from the buyer to the seller—but to go straight back to the buyer. The lucky buyer ended up with both the Punk and the money being offered, and the seller got nothing. Roughly a dozen people were burned, and Hall felt terrible. “That was a complete disaster,” Watkinson says. “It’s like, well, our marketplace is toast.” They posted urgent updates on their website and Twitter telling people to stop trading. Then they wrote a new smart contract in which they undid all the trades, and, several days later, they rolled it out.

Now that the marketplace was working, Larva Labs created the Discord channel where collectors such as Calderon reveled in the Punks’ details, dreamed up personalities for their purchases, and brainstormed other projects involving digital collectibles. Watkinson and Hall’s passion project had kicked off a buzzing community, and they were thrilled. They figured their work was basically done.

The first time that Anne Bracegirdle heard Watkinson speak about the Crypto­Punks, at a blockchain art meetup in downtown Manhattan in early 2018, she became determined to meet the pair. Bracegirdle was a photography specialist at Christie’s at the time. In her nearly 10 years at the auction house, she had seen how hard it was to verify the provenance of a work. And assuring potential buyers of the rarity of a photograph was a challenge when, for example, a living photographer could on a whim decide to issue more prints. The Punks and the blockchain presented an exciting solution to both problems.

Right away, Bracegirdle saw a parallel in Hall and Watkinson’s work: “It immediately became clear to me they were like Andy Warhol,” she says. Hall and Watkinson were “critiquing and exploring the way we consume now,” she says, just as Warhol did with his Campbell’s Soup Cans. Bracegirdle invited the two to a blockchain-themed event she was planning to hold at Christie’s in London. Just like that, they were catapulted into the rarefied world of fine art.

That July, Watkinson and Hall flew to London. At the auction house, they paused to take pictures of themselves under a Christie’s sign. About 350 people in pressed shirts and jackets gathered in the building. Contemporary works from an upcoming auction were installed throughout. On one wall was Yellow Lambo, a 10-foot-long yellow neon sign composed of 42 digits, the smart contract address for a cryptocurrency of the same name. The work was by Kevin Abosch, an artist who once sold a picture of a potato for $1 million.

Three hours in, Hall, wearing a dark blazer over his usual T-shirt, climbed onto the stage for a panel on crypto art. The moderator, a generative art buff named Jason Bailey, turned to him with a deceptively simple question: What do people own when they buy a CryptoPunk?

Bailey was alluding to the issue of whether the image itself was on the blockchain. Hall replied that his answer had a way of making people mad. “You own something on the blockchain—you own a record that you own it,” he said. “You own the right to sell it in the future.” He didn’t explicitly say, however, that Larva Labs retained the copyright, so it wasn’t even obvious if owners could reproduce their Punks. Their project was so new and complicated that the details got thorny fast.

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