Went to Rare Pepes’ First Live Auction on Blockchain

Image: Shutterstock. Composition: Author

On Saturday, January 13, hundreds of blockchain, digital art, and meme enthusiasts gathered at a small event space on Manhattan’s West 23rd Street, some to bid for images of a green frog – memes known as “Rare Pepes” –who live on the blockchain.

These Pepes are not alt-right memes or an authorized extension of the the original work of artist Matt Furie, Nevertheless. They are best considered collectible works of art, and each is associated with a unique digital token to prove its rarity. As Rare Pepes are bought and sold, the tokens change hands and ownership is tracked on the Bitcoin Blockchain, a decentralized ledger that cannot be changed.

the origins of the Rare Pepe phenomenon are obscure 4chan apocrypha, but developer Joe Looney created the Rare Pepe walletthe main platform for buying and selling Rare Pepes, in 2016. I found myself sitting among an audience of his fans at this surreal live auction. Like the few established art world members in the audience, I wanted to see what a live auction of collectable memes would look like. Could memes be sold as high-end works of art?

The live auction kicked off with a set of three rare Pepes, one of which resembled Salvador Dali’s The persistence of Memory but with Pepes melting instead of clocks. The set sold for 12,000 units of Pepe Cash—an extremely liquid Rare Pepe of which there are 700 million units which serves as de facto world currency Rare Pepe – which is equivalent to just over 720 USD at time of writing.

While live auctions in the traditional art world follow rigid rules and demand wise behavior from bidders, the first-ever live auction for rare blockchain art has gotten noisier in the as the bidding continued. “I need this GIF!” shouted a man wearing a beanie when moving art images of Pepe appeared on the screen near the auctioneer’s podium.

Later, the “most expensive rare Pepe in existence”, according to the auctioneer, sold after an enthusiastic but good-natured bidding war. It sounded like Homer Simpson, if Homer Simpson was a depressed green frog. “It’s Homer Pepe!” an audience member pushed, encouraging others to raise their bids. “Jesus Christ,” said another as the bidding continued to climb. In the end, the Pepe sold for 350,000 units of Pepe Cash, which currently stands at US$21,000 (a sum that, remember, was worth $38,500 at the time of the auction).

The Rare Pepe auction (which, it should be noted, also included the sale of a CryptoKitty, a similar collectible item on the Ethereum blockchain) closed a day of panels and creator talks at the Rare Digital Art Festival. Tommy Nicholas, Kevin Trinh and John Zettler of Rare Art Labs hosted the one-day event for creators and admirers of blockchain-based art.

Speakers at the event included members of the New York-based art world and blockchain enthusiasts. During the Rare Pepe auction, staff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and Sotheby’s Institute of Art sat in silence.

According to Rare Pepe auctioneer Louis Parker, some of the art establishment types told him after the auction, “I don’t know what just happened, but it was amazing.” For him, the presence of these large institutions indicates the beginning of both blockchain technology and the culture of memes that are creeping into the realm of mainstream art. Parker, it should be noted, will soon launch its own blockchain-based network for memes, called Archetype.

Read more: The Big Business of CryptoKitties is Being Automated

Stuffy Sotheby’s employees weren’t the only ones shaking their heads during the auction. Even as a self-proclaimed member of the “crypto-nerd” contingent at the event, Matt Hall, who co-founded CryptoPunks, another digital art creation using blockchain technology to ensure uniqueness and track ownership, recognized the few Pepe enthusiasts as a group in their own right. For him, the project is “a little confusing”, although intriguing, and full of jokes that he does not understand.

Although the items for sale were completely digital, the auction itself was remarkably human. Although a member of the public shouted bids on behalf of the remote buyers, “All the high bidders were there in person,” Tommy Nicholas, one of the festival organizers, told me. Next time, however, the team wants the auction to be bigger and include more remote participants. Additionally, said Nicholas, the team is looking to partner with an established art house in the coming months to host a dedicated Rare Pepe auction event.

When speaking with art industry professionals after the auction, Parker saw them start to consider the fusion of art, blockchain and, yes, even memes. . “Are memes art? Is art memes? What’s the difference?” Rare Pepe’s auctioneer Parker wondered aloud.

If watching Rare Pepe’s first-ever live auction taught me anything, it’s that if people are willing to spend almost $40,000 worth of digital assets on these things, then the mainstream art world is going to have to ask the tough Parker questions, whether he wants to or not.

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