Future Tense

We Now Know Who Paid $69.3 Million for a Digital Artwork—Sort Of

This whole story is getting even weirder.

A very zoomed-in detail of "Everydays: The First 5000 Days," showing space ships.
A very zoomed-in detail of “Everydays: The First 5000 Days.” BEEPLE/Handout via REUTERS

After the gavel dropped and a piece of digital art sold for $69.3 million at a Christie’s auction on Thursday, one thing wasn’t clear: who had bought it. Now we know—sort of. The buyer is a mysterious figure known only as “Metakovan” who has been hovering around the cryptocurrency space for years.

Everydays: The First 5000 Days is a collage of 5,000 pictures that artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, started composing every day since 2007. Besides being the third-most-expensive piece of art ever sold by a living artist, the collage is notable because it is attached to a form of cryptocurrency called a non-fungible token, or NFT, and has no physical presence. In fact, the artwork itself is available for viewing free of charge across the internet. What Christie’s actually auctioned off is a one-of-a-kind cryptographic token that acts as a sort of certificate of ownership for the collage, which can in turn be sold to someone else in the future. The buyer also received a digital file of the art and some rights to display the image, but the copyright wasn’t part of the transaction, Christie’s told Slate. NFT’s are the latest cryptocurrency craze, in which celebrities like Grimes and Logan Paul are using the technology to sell digital keepsakes for millions of dollars.

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Initial reports speculated that the winner of the Christie’s auction was Justin Sun, founder of the cryptocurrency platform Tron who has been willing to spend huge sums of money on other virtual grails; he recently bid $2 million for an NFT attached to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet. However, Sun tweeted on Friday that he was outbid within 20 seconds of the auction closing by someone who had offered $250,000 more than his final $60 million bid. (There were around $9 million in fees added to the final bid.) Christie’s announced on Friday that Metakovan, who is a Singapore-based cryptocurrency investor, had actually won the collage.

Metakovan is the founder of the world’s largest NFT fund, Metapurse, and has been amassing an almost $120 million collection of tokenized art over the last several years. The collector also paid $2.2 million for another set of 20 pieces by Beeple in December using various different accounts in an apparent attempt to hide his tracks. Metakovan has been displaying the artworks in a digital museum and selling cryptographic tokens that entitle buyers to a stake in the collection. The current price of one of these tokens is currently about $20 as of Friday evening, giving the entire lot a market cap of about $195.4 million. Here’s a video about Metakovan’s B.20 Museum, which may not make it any less confusing, but looks kind of cool:

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“When you think of high-valued NFTs, this one is going to be pretty hard to beat,” Metakovan said of The First 5000 Days in a press release. “It represents 13 years of everyday work. Techniques are replicable and skill is surpassable, but the only thing you can’t hack digitally is time. This is the crown jewel, the most valuable piece of art for this generation. It is worth $1 billion.”

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Details about Metakovan are scant, but the investor has given a few interviews with some select hints about his identity. In an interview with Hack Crypto, he said he’s a coder who discovered Bitcoin in 2013 while trading options. He began going to cryptocurrency meetups in Canada and became more and more involved in the space. Most of his assets are now in cryptocurrency; he said he doesn’t even own a house or car. On the podcast The Defiant, Metakovan said he’s built several crypto companies and has been active in investing in both tokens and blockchain infrastructure. He became active in the NFT space in 2017 and assumed the Metakovan personality a few years later. Explaining his pseudonym, Metakovan said, “It gives you a space where you can experiment and be something you’re not, so you can learn things and you can remove all the attachment that would come with being the same person doing something else. It gives us a clean slate on the internet.” He got the name, which means “king of meta” in Tamil, from his mother. (The “meta,” in this case, refers to the metaverse, the concept of a virtual world that encompasses all of the internet and popular culture.) According to his spokesperson, known only by the pseudonym Twobadour, Metakovan has been able to fund his NFT ventures because he was such an early investor in cryptocurrencies. Indeed, he told Hack Crypto that he was in contact with one of the founders of Ethereum, the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency, before its launch and subsequently became one of its first investors. It’s unclear how rich that would make Metakovan, but “very” is a good guess.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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