The real deal in the virtual marketplace

Is the world ready for a virtual, limited-edition artwork, which can be bought and sold like a physical asset? Harry Blain and Robert Norton, the founders of S[edition], think so. Blain, a successful art dealer, and Norton, previously CEO of Saatchi Online, have launched a new venture selling artworks in a purely digital format. Buyers can download them to their mobiles, computer screens and iPads, and since they own them, they can in theory resell them, once the editions – from 2,000 to 10,000 – are sold out.

“We went to some of the world’s leading contemporary artists and asked them to create digital online artworks, as a replication of their physical work,” says Blain. “This continues the natural evolution of everything today, moving from a physical world to a virtual world: we are dematerialising art.”

Among the artists who have signed up are bankable names such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Shepard Fairey, Mat Collishaw, Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Some have created new work – Collishaw, for example, who has animated Dürer’s 1503 masterpiece, “The Great Piece of Turf”. Others have tweaked existing images or sculptures, such as Hirst, who has used his diamond-studded baby’s skull, “For Heaven’s Sake”, to create a short video. At £500 and in an edition of 2,000, this is the most expensive item on the site; others start at £5, which gets you a Matt Collishaw or a Wim Wenders, in editions of 10,000. “As we go on, new artists will be added, and they will be working on things exclusive to the site,” says Blain.

'Whispering Weeds', Mat Collishaw

The twist is that a “member” (joining is free) acquires a certificate of authenticity when he buys a work on the site, which is delivered to an online “vault” accessible via an app or a web browser. Once an edition is sold out (prices go up towards the end of the edition) then owners can resell their “artwork”. A static artwork (for example, a Hirst butterfly print) can be accessed as a “png” (portable network graphic). Videos – such as Bill Viola’s “A Phase from ‘Chris’” (2011, £125, edition of 5,000), showing a man showering in reverse motion – are streamed directly from the site.

The big question is inevitably that of piracy. The founders say that they can’t be copied easily. “The videos cannot be streamed to someone who doesn’t own them,” says Norton. “As for the still works, they are digitally watermarked and have their owner’s name on them. While there is no limit on the number of apps you can use them on, we do monitor, and if for example there were 1,000 downloads from one account, we would be alerted.”

How does it work commercially? The site takes an (undisclosed) cut from each sale. The site also enables a visitor to send an enquiry to a gallery that represents an artist; S[edition] doesn’t take a cut here. “Hopefully our site will drive people into museums and lead to enquiries for physical works in the representing galleries,” says Blain.

'Toxic Schizophrenia', Tim Noble and Sue Webster

The idea of segmenting a market is not new, even in the art world. You can buy Yoshitomo Nara cards and books for a few pounds, while a painting can fetch over $1m. Hirst has been extremely savvy, playing on the £50m asking price of his diamond skull to make a T-shirt seem justified at £50.

Norton says that things are going well: they had 10,000 sign-ups within 24 hours of launching. Most popular so far is a Hirst spot image (180 sold for £7.50, edition of 10,000), while the least popular have been a Mat Collishaw (£5, edition of 10,000), a Craig Martin (£50, edition of 5,000) and a Viola (£125, edition of 5,000), each having sold just seven copies.

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