‘Beautiful dust’ on the blockchain: MFA plans sale of NFTs based on fragile French pastels

“Someone had to move first,” said Eric Woods, chief operating officer at the MFA. “What’s exciting to us is the ability to really leverage this new technology to not only broaden our audience, but also expose our audience to the artworks in our collection.”

In the paintings conservation studio, MFA COO Eric Woods discusses the museum’s plans to sell NFTs. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Even so, some critics are likely to look askance at the sale, which does not include rights to the artworks, asking how it aligns with the museum’s mission.

“The museum demeans itself by getting involved in the alchemy necessary to persuade us that an infinitely reproducible jpeg can somehow be worth thousands,” art historian Bendor Grosvenor wrote in The Art Newspaper earlier this year about a similar sale by the British Museum. “Think of it as the emperor’s new code.”

NFTs took the art world by storm in 2021 when Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer known as “Beeple,” sold a digital collage for a jaw-dropping $69 million. Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey soon auctioned an NFT of his inaugural tweet for $2.9 million, as celebrities paid top dollar for tokens linked to a series of cartoon apes.

But with inflation now choking the broader economy, crypto markets have cratered. Ethereum, the cryptocurrency that underpins most NFTs, has lost roughly 80 percent of its value since November. Well known NFT marketplaces are beset by fraud. Phishing scams have led to high-profile thefts, and there are significant concerns about the technology’s environmental impact.

Once frothy NFT sales have also fizzled: The Dorsey tweet brought a high bid of just $280 at a subsequent auction — well below its listing price of $48 million. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami apologized earlier this month to patrons for his “stagnant” prices. And NFTs from Beeple’s recent collaboration with Madonna, one of which depicted the pop star giving birth to robot centipedes, fetched sums in the low six figures.

It is, in other words, a challenging time for NFTs, said Ethan McMahon, an economist with the blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis.

“Things have slowed down,” he said, noting there’s “a whole bunch of fear in the broader crypto community.”

Nevertheless, the MFA is planning to launch the first of two general market NFT sales on July 14 via LaCollection, a platform that caters to museums and has collaborated on similar projects with the British Museum and the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

Although details of the MFA sale are still being worked out, Woods said the museum may offer more than 2,000 NFTs, some starting at around $315, with proceeds funding the conservation of two paintings by Degas: “Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli” (1865) and “Degas’s Father Listening to Lorenzo Pagans Playing the Guitar” (1869-72).

Reproductions of the original 24 pastels are readily available on the MFA’s website. The actual works, however, are rarely exhibited, said European paintings curator Katie Hanson.

“They are beautiful dust,” said Hanson, who included most of the works in the 2018 exhibition “French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault.” ”That is, inherently delicate and fragile and sensitive to things like vibration.”

A detail from the Edgar Degas pastel on paper “Dancers in Rose” (circa 1900), one of 24 pastels the MFA is using to create NFTs. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Woods described the sale as “mission aligned,” calling it “an extension of existing practice.”

“We currently have posters in our museum shop of works in our collection,” he said. “The great thing about this is we’re able to experiment and better understand whether or not we have a future in this.”

To date, a number of museums have minted NFTs based on works in their collections, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Whitworth gallery in England, among others.

Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps, chief executive and cofounder of LaCollection, said he’s currently in talks with several US museums about similar deals.

“I think now it’s just a question of time,” said Beaucamps. He added that although the British Museum’s sales were in the “seven figures,” it’s hard to estimate what the MFA sale might bring “given the market conditions.”

“It’s a test,” he said, adding that he hoped the auction would help the museum reach new audiences. “Financials are not the only indicator we will measure to assess the success of the operation.”

Even so, crypto’s burgeoning complications present challenging questions for any museum wanting to mint NFTs, said Elizabeth Merritt, vice president for strategic foresight at the American Alliance of Museums.

Not only must a museum determine the sale is in keeping with its mission, but it must also consider the “reputational risk” it takes by offering its public a speculative asset.

“Selling an NFT is implicitly an endorsement of the product,” said Merritt, who is also the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “It has yet to be determined whether this is a stable, valuable, credible product, or whether it has fundamental instabilities that could collapse, leading people, to the extent that they were doing this as an economic investment, holding the bag.”

A detail from Edgar Degas’s oil painting “Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli” (1865), one of two works scheduled to be conserved with the NFT funds. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Equally troubling is the significant environmental impact associated with minting and selling NFTs — a computing-intensive task that consumes large amounts of energy. Estimates vary, but one widely referenced calculation found that a single NFT can produce emissions on par with a two-hour flight.

Beaucamps acknowledged the technology’s steep environmental costs, saying his company is currently finalizing an audit of its energy consumption.

“This is a very important topic,” he said, adding LaCollection is working on a variety of fronts and hopes to reduce its carbon emissions dramatically by the end of the year. “We [planted] more than 3,600 trees in Denmark.”

But while NFTs and digital art may pose ethical challenges for museums, they also present a host of potential opportunities.

NFTs can not only be coded to contain so-called “smart contracts,” which can automatically distribute a percentage of all future sales to the artwork’s creator, but they’ve also raised public awareness about important issues in the arts.

“Museums are uniquely positioned to participate in these conversations about ownership, authenticity, value,” said Tina Rivers Ryan, an assistant curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo who focuses on digital art. “You know, the question of who gets to make art, and who gets to profit from it.”

McMahon, the economist, said the NFT market will likely stay soft until the broader crypto market begins to recover. He noted, however, that there’s likely “still ample room for growth” for NFT sales by museums.

“It’s more a matter of getting the plumbing right and getting the infrastructure set up,” he said, “marketing and whatnot, so that these museums are really able to capture the sentiment when things pick up.”

To that end, Beaucamps said the MFA’s upcoming sale will be “gamified,” offering purchasers a “secret box” that will reveal a hidden NFT, while also incentivizing buyers with a series of rewards such as additional NFTs and more traditional VIP museum perks, such as viewing access to select pastels from the MFA’s collection.

For prospective buyers, “This is maybe the best moment to start a collection,” he said. “We are living on a new page in the history of art.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.