The value of these pieces derives, in part, from scarcity. The works are linked to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) secured by blockchain tech, which makes them unique and proves ownership.
At least, that’s the idea. But, sometimes, the assets aren’t all that they seem.
There are numerous reports of NFT fraudsters selling fake artworks, stealing credit card information, and hacking into cryptocurrency accounts. Perhaps the most notorious example yet is this week’s sale of a fake Banksy NFT.
The counterfeit Banksy NFT was auctioned on the OpenSea marketplace. Titled “Great Redistribution of the Climate Change Disaster,” it portrays a pixelated person smoking a cigarette in front of fuming chimney stacks.
A since-deleted link to the auction had been posted on Banksy’s official website. This apparently convinced a collector to bid around $330,000 in cryptocurrency for the item.
The seller quickly accepted the bid. The buyer told the Guardian that he immediately suspected he’d been conned:
I presumed it was a three-day auction and when my bid was accepted I pretty much knew then it must be fake.
Luckily for him, the money was quickly refunded — apart from a transaction fee of £5,000 (around $6,900).
The episode sparked feverish speculation. Was Banksy himself involved? Was the con an inside job?
The skepticism was understandable. The artwork didn’t even resemble a real Banksy, but an NFT whale had decided to offer 90% more than his rival bidders for the asset.
The winning bidder, an NFT collector known as (I shit you not) Pranksy, denied any involvement. He told the BBC that the hacker may have been spooked by the reaction:
The press coverage of the hack plus the fact that I had found the hacker and followed him on Twitter may have pushed him into a refund.
Just to add a comment, to those who feel this may have been some sort of stunt. I would never risk a future relationship with Banksy or any fine artist by hiring someone to hack their website and then buying an #NFT from myself, what an unusual day!
— Pranksy 📦 (@pranksy) August 31, 2021
When the scheme began to unravel, Pranksy tweeted that it was “all very confusing, some could say… very banksy?!?”
Pranksy was not alone in spotting similarities in the ploys of the artist and imitator. Had Banksy concocted the whole plot as a critique of the NFT market?
Banksy has a history of using his art to mock the art market. In 2018, a Banksy spray painting was sent through a shredder moments after it was sold at auction for $1.4 million dollars. The prank was praised as a rebuke of the excesses of the art market. It also conveniently doubled up as an effective PR stunt.
The “reborn” artwork was then purchased by an unnamed buyer at the original price. Some observers suggested Banky had colluded with the auction house to pull off the act.
Banksy’s team dismissed the claims. They also rebuffed the rumors that the artist had been involved in the fake NFT sale:
The artist Banksy has not created any NFT artworks. Any Banksy NFT auctions are not affiliated with the artist in any shape or form.
I expect that they’re telling the truth. As well as not looking like a Banksy, the piece was reportedly unsigned and hadn’t been authenticated by the artist’s agency.
The true mastermind may forever remain a mystery. Whoever they may be, their ruse has further exposed the risks of buying NFTs.