The zany ascent of NFT art collectors

Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile is moving places. It is not that he does not like his current Miami house. It is more that he needs a place where he can best enjoy his art collection. “The new home is going to have 15 or 16 screens all around, and projectors,” Rodriguez-Fraile, a 33-year-old Spaniard with a background in finance, says. That is because his collection consists not of sculptures, paintings or etchings, but of non-fungible tokens – or NFTs – unique cryptographic files that collectors regard as proofs of ownership of digital art pieces like videos, gifs, or computer-designed images.

Everyone can right-click and download the artwork an NFT is associated with; but the people who, like Rodriguez-Fraile, buy the tokens in online auctions for swingeing cryptocurrency sums, say they feel like the only real owners. Which is why Rodriguez-Fraile is looking forward to spending his days surrounded by screens constantly flaunting his purchases.

Rodriguez-Fraile’s work as a patron of the crypto arts, however, extends beyond his living room: he is currently working to open several digital art exhibition rooms around the world (the first, he says, will launch in Miami in the second half of 2021). And his efforts even transcend the physical realm, as he is one of the founders of the MOCA (Museum of Crypto Art), an NFT-backed art gallery hosted on a VR platform. “The best thing with these digital artworks is that we can travel with them, we can take them wherever we want, we can showcase them to people around the globe,” he says. “If you own a very nice masterpiece by Picasso, everybody knows you own it, but very few people will get to see it.”

The NFT art scene got white-hot incredibly fast: an NFT linked to a collage by American digital artist Beeple sold for $69,346,250 in cryptocurrency in a Christie’s auction in March 2021. Rodriguez-Fraile says he has twice spent $1 million on an NFT – on works by visual artists Pak and WhIsBe – and in March he made headlines after re-selling one of his pieces, a 38-second Beeple video, for over $6 million. To many, this is just the usual boom-and-bust cycle all cryptocurrency-adjacent fads go through – pointing out that nearly all collectors are wealthy cryptocurrency entrepreneurs, and that as of June 2021 NFT sales had crashed to less eye-catching levels. Others think that, whatever the fluctuations in price and buzz, NFT art is here to stay. Vincent Harrison, a Los Angeles-based art gallerist who has been working with NFT artists and platforms, says that collectors of digital art are no different from those who splurge on Tintorettos and Jeff Koons.

“It’s the same collector mentality. The beauty of it with digital art is that people don’t have to stop collecting because they never run out of space,” he says “This almost creates digital hoarders – which is fine, because I know plenty of collectors that have art they can’t put on the wall: they have it in storage. But they still collect just because they love art.”

Rodriguez-Fraile, indeed, styles himself as a collector through and through: he carefully chooses his pieces guided by his aesthetic sense and the artist’s brand, and he cultivates friendly relationships with the creators whose work he enjoys. “This is never, never a monetary thought,” he says. He even says that, while he could hardly call himself an art collector before his journey through the NFT space – he was familiar with cryptocurrency, on the other hand – the experience has increased his love of “traditional art”: in May, he bought a David Bowie portrait by Elizabeth Peyton from Sotheby’s for $2 million. For others in this space, NFT-collecting is either a nuanced enterprise suffused with revolutionary undertones, or a pointless financial rat-race.